SD lawmakers to study funding for roads and bridges
By Nora Hertel
PIERRE (AP) — As federal funds for local transportation projects dry up, South Dakota lawmakers are seeking ways to maintain roads and bridges.
Sen. Mike Vehle is behind the Legislature's effort to better plan for the state's future transportation needs. Vehle, a Mitchell Republican, proposed and will chair a summer study on short- and long-term funding for roads and bridges.
Legislators ranked the topic as the top priority for a summer study out of 19 proposed. Officials conducted a transportation study in 2008 and 2009 but agreed that enough has changed since then to warrant a new look.
Committee members will likely consider gas tax increases, industry contributions and converting some roads back to gravel.
Recent stimulus money from the federal government helped the state update roads.
"That pushed us way ahead," Vehle said. He said the roads are in the best condition they've been in years.
Only 2 percent of roads are in poor condition now, but in 10 years that number will increase to 27 percent. And 21 percent of the state's bridges are structurally deficient, according to a report from the American Road and Transportation Builders.
With the federal transportation fund expected to go into the red this year, Vehle wants the state to get a handle on funding options.
The federal government usually covers 80 percent of transportation projects. And South Dakota receives a two-fold return on federal gas taxes because, Vehle said, the state has a lot of roads but not a lot of people.
The Legislature's last study on transportation resulted in recommended tax and fee increases.
Rep. Mike Verchio said the state should not rely on gas tax increases. The Hill City Republican chairs the House Transportation Committee. Verchio said the committee should consider other funding options and look to industry groups that benefit from the state's roads.
"I don't think we can throw it all on the backs of our citizens," he said.
He suggested a voluntary excise tax on industry vehicles by mileage or weight.
Verchio is particularly concerned about bridges. He said South Dakota's percentage of compromised bridges it the fourth worst in the nation.
Secretary of Transportation Darin Bergquist said the committee can also consider converting some roads back to gravel. "That's just another option to try and stretch the dollars further," he said.
Vehle said he'll bring in information from the National Conference on State Legislatures so committee members can draw on other states' solutions.
He noted that state's largest industries — agriculture and tourism — rely on the roads.
"If you got it, a road brought it. Not much is parachuted in," Vehle is fond of saying. "Hopefully more people are realizing that."