Locals wait for state action on roads

Published 10:29 am Thursday, May 5, 2016

When it comes to solutions to Mower County road needs, most eyes remain fixed on the state, even if optimism isn’t high.

On Tuesday, the Mower County board directed staff to move ahead on a timeline outlined by Public Works Director Mike Hanson for discussions, public hearings and an eventual vote on a proposal to add a half-cent sales tax for Mower County’s underfunded roads and bridges.

The board has been discussing how to address a roughly $100 million need for road and bridge projects over the next decade and an estimated funding shortfall of $6.5 million per year.

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One option is a half-cent sales tax the board could enact for specific road projects. That would slim the county’s projected annual funding shortfall from $6.5 million a year to $5 million a year.

The next step of the timeline will be to review and finalize Hanson’s draft plan of projects that would be completed with the sales tax. The board will host public hearings in July and vote to approve or reject the half-cent sales tax in August. If approved, the sales tax would be implemented in January 2017.

Though the county has a vast need for road funding, talk of paying for it has spurred plenty of opinions, many of them pressing the state to pass a transportation bill.


Commissioners, Austin Area Chamber of Commerce and other leaders have also been outspoken on the need for the state Legislature to address road funding issues; however, the board, the chamber and many others are pessimistic about a deal coming out of St. Paul since talks haven’t yet advanced far. Many Democrats want a gas tax increase as part of a funding package, but most Republicans oppose the option.

Board members didn’t hide their frustration Tuesday at the prospects of another gridlock on transportation.

“That’s two years in a row that they’ve done nothing, and that’s not what we elected them for,” Commissioner Jerry Reinartz said.

County officials discussed the plan with Austin Chamber of Commerce leaders Tuesday morning and previously talked to township supervisors, both of which have produced a myriad of opinions.

The chamber doesn’t have an official position on the county’s half-cent sales tax proposal.

“Everybody recognizes that statewide, we need more money dedicated to roads and bridges,” chamber Executive Director Sandy Forstner said. “And this is one funding solution they are looking at.”

The Austin chamber, like the state chamber, has been urging the Legislature to pass strategic and sustained funding for roads, bridges and transit this session.

Forstner said they believe the state is the primary funding source for roads and bridges, and he noted the chamber and others are likely to question whether the sales tax is the best solution to meeting the state and county’s road needs.

“Our point of emphasis is to get a transportation bill passed in St. Paul,” Forstner said.

Some have argued a sales tax wouldn’t be the best option since the majority of the retail comes from Austin but much of the funding will be used for many rural roads outside Austin.

Many rural residents have also been outspoken in calling for the county to better maintain roads around the county.

In 2013, the state approved a wheelage tax and a half-cent sales tax as options for counties to fund local road and bridge projects. In June of 2013, the Mower board approved a $10 wheelage tax, which is paid when drivers renew licenses. That was estimated to bring in $357,000 a year.

However, commissioners and others have argued the plans are ways for the state to pass the buck of road funding down to the counties.