LINCOLN, Neb. — Two years after Iowa and Nebraska raised their gas taxes, both states are seeing a flurry of new roadway projects at a time when national infrastructure efforts have stalled.
The extra revenue has allowed state and local officials to move forward quickly on overdue bridge repairs and plans for major highway projects.
“It has had a tremendous impact on the investment in Iowa's public roads,” said Stuart Anderson, director of planning, programming and modal division for the Iowa Department of Transportation.
Anderson said he has seen “definitely much more movement” to address road needs at the state level than from the federal government. Congress approved a five-year surface transportation law in 2015, but the massive infrastructure investment President Donald Trump promised hasn't materialized. Last week, the president promised to unveil the package as soon as Congress passes its tax code overhaul.
Iowa and Nebraska raised their gas taxes in 2015 with support from a surprising coalition that included farm groups, truckers and even some anti-tax conservative Republicans.
Iowa passed its 10-cent-per-gallon increase in February 2015 with backing from then-Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican. The current rate is 30.5 cents per gallon. A recent analysis shows the tax has generated an extra $515 million for projects in all 99 counties.
That May, Nebraska approved a 6-cent, phased-in increase that will fully go into effect in 2019, when the tax tops out at 31.6 cents per gallon. Once fully implemented, the tax will generate an additional $25 million annually for the state and $51 million for cities and counties.
Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts opposed the increase, forcing lawmakers to override his veto. But the following year, Ricketts led a push to use $400 million of the new gas tax revenue for highway and bridge projects, and a transportation grant program.
Officials in southeastern Nebraska's Nemaha County used some of the revenue to replace bridges that could no longer safely support the weight of certain farm equipment, said Marvin Bohling, a county commissioner. Three bridges have already been fixed and the county is applying for state aid to fix more in the coming year.
“We feel really fortunate we're able to do this,” Bohling said. “In the long run, hopefully this will help the economy.”
Bohling said roughly 40 of the county's 250 bridges are considered deficient, forcing officials to impose weight restrictions and drawing complaints from residents who travel them frequently.
“We can't possibly come up with enough revenue by ourselves to fix them as fast as they need to be fixed,” Bohling said. “The bridges can't keep up with the modern equipment. We hear it all the time — ‘This bridge isn't strong enough for my combine.’”
Nebraska Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jeni Campana said the state is proceeding with design work on several highway projects with the new funding. The department also received an influx of cash from the Build Nebraska Act, a 2011 law that diverted sales tax revenue into state and local highway projects.
Anderson said some of Iowa's new revenue will help pay for expanding highways from two lanes to four, including the heavily traveled U.S. Highways 20, 30 and 61.
In eastern Iowa, Washington County officials used their share of state gas-tax revenue to reshape and restore gravel roads that had taken a beating from six decades of traffic. Some of the money helped cover daily maintenance and replace out-of-date bridges with culverts, said County Engineer Jacob Thorius. He said the county receives an extra $600,000 to $700,000 a year.
Thorius said the projects helped some farmers operate more efficiently by allowing them to haul larger and heavier loads. Because of weight limits on one of the old bridges, some had to make multiple trips to transport all of their grain and livestock.
“They had to take more time and burn more fuel to get their grain and livestock out,” he said.
For Boone County, Iowa, the additional $500,000 a year helps officials tap into federal matching funds to increase the number of bridge repairs and replacements, said County Engineer Scott Kruse. With more up-front cash on hand, the county can start work sooner and get federal reimbursement later. The state money also comes with fewer time-consuming regulations, he said.
“It's benefited us a lot,” Kruse said. Without the tax, “the backlog of projects would have just kept piling up. There's never a shortage.”