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Gas tax hike paying off for state and local road and bridge projects

DES MOINES — When they pull into the station and fill up their gas tanks, drivers pay to the state of Iowa 10 cents more per gallon than they did a few years ago.

That gas tax hike has produced an extra $515 million for state and local governments to put toward fixing Iowa’s roads and bridges.

Because of that influx of cash, hundreds of road and bridge construction or repair projects in each of the state’s 99 counties have been added or started sooner than planned, according to data recently compiled by the state’s nonpartisan fiscal and legal analysis agency.

“It’s been a very much needed shot in the arm for us,” said Woodbury Co. engineer Mark Nahra.

A contentious debate preceded the decision in 2015 to increase the state’s gas tax by 10 cents per gallon. The increase was approved by a bipartisan mixture of state legislators and signed into law by former Gov. Terry Branstad.

At the time, the state transportation department said state revenue for road and bridge construction and repair needs was falling short by $215 million each year. Projects were being delayed and multiple ratings indicated the state’s bridges were in poor shape.

The 10-cent increase produced an additional $220 million in the state budget years that ended June 30 of 2016 and 2017, according to the state data.

With the addition of a smaller portion of new revenue from the first few months after the increase was approved, a total of $515 million in extra revenue has been produced by the 10-cent increase since its implementation.

Of that, $245 million has gone to the state road system, $167 million to county roads and $103 million to cities.

Each of Iowa’s 99 counties is adding new projects with the new revenue, according to the state data.

Nearly $100 million was used on 237 critical projects, at least one in every county, during the state budget year that ended June 30, according to state data.

Jon Burgstrum, who is Scott County engineer and also vice president of the Iowa County Engineers Association, said that county has been able to boost its road and bridge construction spending by 50 percent over the next five years thanks to the new revenue coming in. The upcoming projects, which will cost an estimated $4.3 million, will include replacing two bridges and three large culverts, plus four resurfacing projects.

“So we are seeing more work being done, which is a benefit to Scott County,” Burgstrum said. “We have added bridge projects to our plan so our older and more deficient bridges are being replaced sooner. We are also resurfacing older pavements sooner. The added work creates a safer and maker drive-able transportation system in Scott County.”

Some county officials said they have been banking some of the early returns on the gas tax increase in order to build up their reserve accounts in anticipation of big, expensive projects on the horizon.

“We felt it was better to let the money come in and build up for a little while so we had money on hand to spend instead of banking on money that might not come in consistently, as fuel tax (revenue) does fluctuate,” Burgstrum said.

In Black Hawk County, supervisors had recently approved roughly $40 million in bonds for road and bridge projects over the previous handful of years, so the backlog there was not as long as other counties. So Black Hawk opted to store up some of the new gas tax revenue, said County Engineer Cathy Nicholas.

Black Hawk County has upcoming bridge projects that will cost $1 million and from $5 million to $7 million.

“We have saved a portion of it, let it accumulate in our fund balance because we have several large bridge projects in our five-year plan,” Nicholas said. “Yes, we receive some federal bridge money and can save federal money for several years, but then you are neglecting all your other bridges as well. We have saved some of our (new state gas tax) money for these projects, the board (of supervisors) has committed to bonding approximately $4 million for the large bridge, but we still need more to pay the large price tag.”

Iowa in recent years has ranked at or near the top of national reports highlighting states with bridge repair needs. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association, for example, published a study this year that said Iowa has the nation’s most structurally deficient bridges, meaning one or more element of the bridge is considered to be in poor condition.

But the new gas tax revenue may be helping local governments address that issue. More than 31 percent of bridges are in line to be repaired or replaced, according to a report published this year by InsuranceQuotes.

“That’s a pretty high percentage ... which I thought was interesting,” Laura Adams, a senior insurance analyst with InsuranceQuotes, told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “It means the leadership in Iowa is likely very aware of what’s going on with the state of these bridges and there are proposals to replace them or repair them.”

Some counties have been using the additional gas tax revenue to improve their gravel roads.

Nicholas said Black Hawk County has boosted spending on its gravel roads by $200,000 per year.

“Our gravel road system had been neglected, and that was starting to get critical,” she said.

Woodbury County has taken similar action on its more than 900 miles of gravel roads, spending $300,000 per year of the new gas tax revenue on them, Nahra said. Some of the county’s gravel roads see more than 400 vehicles per day, many of them large farm vehicles, Nahra said.

“Some of those roads take a pretty good beating,” he said. “This time of year they really take a beating, during the harvest. ... It puts a lot of strain on the roads.”

At the state level, the new gas tax revenue has meant completing work on multiple four-lane corridors, including U.S. 20 in western Iowa, U.S. 30 in Tama and Benton counties, and U.S. 61 in southeast Iowa.

“The (state transportation) commission wasn’t able to fund any of those projects prior to the fuel tax increase,” said Stuart Anderson, with the Iowa transportation department.

It is unlikely, however, that Iowa’s 2015 state gas tax increase will prevent long-term funding issues for state roads and bridges. As vehicles continue to become more fuel efficient and electric-powered vehicles become more prevalent, gasoline sales will continue to decline, as will revenue from the state gas tax.

Anderson credited Iowa lawmakers for having the vision to include other revenue streams, including vehicle registration fees, in its road funding formula. Still, he acknowledged big decisions likely will have to be made in the future as gas tax revenue declines.

“I think that will be, in the coming years, an item of increased discussion about how to deal with that,” he said.

Waterloo sewer needs near $83 million

WATERLOO — It may cost nearly $18 million for the city to make sanitary sewer improvements required under a federal court order.

Another $65 million in work could be necessary over the next 15 years for the city to avoid falling back into trouble with environmental regulators.

But Waterloo city officials and staff with AECOM, an engineering firm preparing the cost estimates, said they are rapidly complying with mandates from the U.S. Justice department and Environmental Protection Agency.

“I really do think that we’re ahead of the game,” said Waste Management Services Superintendent Steve Hoambrecker. “To date we have met all the reporting requirements and paid no (daily) fines.

“While it is expensive, it’s something that needed to be done,” he added. “It has had an impact on the system, and I would like to think it’s money well spent.”

The EPA found a long list of problems when it inspected the city’s sanitary sewage collection system in 2010, including cross connections, broken mains and inadequate capacity that led untreated sewage to spill into creeks or back up in basements.

The city settled a pending lawsuit over the Clean Water Act violations in October 2015, agreeing to pay a $272,000 fine, increase reporting requirements, complete an assessment of the city’s current sewer system and develop a master plan for improvements.

AECOM is preparing the master plan, which must be turned in to EPA by the end of December.

A draft report details $17.9 million in projects necessary to comply with the consent decree in the next three to five years, including lining sewers, fixing manholes, upgrading lift stations and building a new northwest interceptor sewer main.

The program also calls for the continued disconnection of home footing drains from the sanitary sewer and eliminating cross connections, where sewage and storm water run through the same mains.

“There really wasn’t any surprises there,” said AECOM’s John LaPointe. “The bottlenecks that were in your system were already really well known by everyone.”

LaPointe emphasized the city must not forget about another $64.7 million in future improvements over the next 15 years “which are needed … to keep you in compliance with the requirements in the consent decree.”

Both LaPointe and Hoambrecker said proactive steps the city took during negotiations before signing the consent decree are paying dividends.

The city spent $4.1 million over the past three years lining pipes in the western portion of the city and fixing manholes to prevent groundwater infiltration. Another $4.7 million went to help homeowners replace footing drain connections with sump pumps.

A new fat, oil and grease program was adopted to add inspections and requirements for restaurants to remove the pipe-clogging materials from their sewer discharges. Grease removal tripled from 2014 to 2016 under the FOG program, Hoambrecker said.

Another $2.1 million was spent on new equipment to help city sewer workers televise and clean sanitary sewers.

Hoambrecker pointed to a broken sewer line crossing Dry Run Creek that was discovered during the new inspection program.

When the sewer line was full, smelly untreated sewage was pushed out into the creek; when the sewer line was mostly empty, water from the creek entered the pipe and sewer users were paying to treat it at the plant on Easton Avenue.

Along with approving the master plan, Hoambrecker said City Council members will need to make some potentially difficult decisions about the future of the footing drain removal program.

The original program covered about 4,000 homes in a triangle generally bounded by the Cedar River, Black Hawk Creek and west city limits. Nearly 3,700 of those homes either removed footing drains with the help of a $2,000 city grant or were not connected in the first place.

The remaining 300 homes will see a $50 monthly surcharge on their sewer bills if they don’t comply by the end of 2017.

Hoambrecker said the challenge is whether the city will continue the program in other parts of the community. If so, Hoambrecker said the council should consider cutting the amount it subsidizes in disconnections.

While the program “is effectively removing the peak flows, it is, the way it’s been orchestrated, a very expensive program,” Hoambrecker said.

“That may be a tough pill to handle,” he added. “That’s something that would probably take some political will if we continue that.”

Time capsule reveals Sacred Heart Catholic Church’s history

OSAGE — More than 300 parishioners sat anxiously waiting as Gary Hemann, a member of the Sacred Heart Building Committee, cut open the 1928 time capsule found in the church’s cornerstone. The parishioners had gathered Nov. 5 after Sunday morning Mass to discover what had been placed in the rectangle copper box.

“We were going to re-lay the old cornerstone in the courtyard of the new church,” Hemann said. “I was just cleaning it up, rinsing it off with water, when I found a small cemented section in the granite cornerstone, so I chipped it away and found the box.

“Someone had chopped out the granite so the copper box (time capsule) could be cemented in it. It could have very easily never been found.”

Joining Hemann during the ceremony were fellow committeemen Leo Chisholm and Dave Mayer. After Hemann cautiously cut away the top of the box, Chisholm and Mayer took turns holding up and explaining the contents found in the box. Surprisingly, most of the contents were in pristine condition.

Among the 89-year-old objects, which were placed in the box in early August 1928, were two copies of the Wednesday, Aug. 1, 1928, Osage newspapers – the Osage News and the Mitchell County Press.

“Impressive ceremonies will mark the laying of the cornerstone of the new Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Osage next Sunday afternoon, Aug. 5, at 3 o’clock,” read the first paragraph of the Mitchell County Press article.

Several other Catholic publications were in the capsule, including a copy of “The Witness” and “The Catholic Citizen”, which are still in circulation. As Mayer pulled out the 1928 copy of “The Witness,” he said, “Leo’s ad is in here,” which brought some laughter from the crowd.

Also among the contents were several neatly handwritten notes recording the church’s history. In the notes, it was stated the full city block purchased for the Catholic Church cost only $400. A handwritten postcard with a picture of the original church built in 1887, which later burned to the ground Jan. 26, 1928, read, “This church the 1st in Osage, was built by Rev. E. W. Fowler in the year 1887. It was dedicated by RT Rev. Bishop Hennessy, Bishop of Dubuque, and destroyed by fire Jan. 26, 1928.” It was signed, “Rev J. P. Martiu, Pastor 1928.”

One of the small metal artifacts in the box was a mini container, which, when opened, revealed a very small silver statute of Mother Mary.

A list of those who pledged toward the rebuilding of the church in 1928 and the amounts they pledged were found on several typed pages in the box. The largest donation recorded was $2,500, with many families giving $25 toward reconstruction. The fire insurance payment toward the new church was $21,000, and pledges toward the rebuilding totaled $20,780.

Dorothy Niess, who found her dad’s name, Sam Bonoff, on the list of donations said, “To find my dad’s name in here is heartwarming.”

Courier is a Lee Enterprises Enterprise of the Year finalist

DAVENPORT — Lee Enterprises Inc. announced Friday the selection of five Enterprise of the Year Finalists for 2017, honoring superior performance in key business and customer measures.

The Courier was one of the finalists.

The five finalists for the company’s highest honor were selected from among more than 50 divisions in 22 states, representing print and digital daily newspaper operations, regional agricultural publications and nationwide digital services, said Kevin Mowbray, president and chief executive officer.

“These five finalists rose to the top of a very impressive group of enterprises,” Mowbray said. “In honoring these finalists, we also applaud the outstanding performance all across Lee in serving advertisers and readers in our communities, as well as delivering impressive results on many key business initiatives.”

The 2017 Enterprise of the Year Finalists are:

The Courier in Waterloo. The combined readership of Sunday and daily publications reaches 73 percent of their market. The publisher is Roy Biondi.

The Journal Times in Racine, Wis., was a finalist in 2016. The combined audiences of The Journal Times and reach nearly 80 percent of adults in their market. The publisher is Mark Lewis.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was the 2016 and 2012 Enterprise of the Year and a finalist in 2010. The Post-Dispatch reaches nearly 1 million readers weekly, and is the most widely visited website across all digital platforms in St. Louis. The publisher is Ray Farris.

The Times and Democrat in Orangeburg, S.C., was a finalist in 2016. The Times and Democrat is the first and best source of news in Orangeburg and surrounding communities, delivering information anytime, anywhere through print, online and mobile devices. They are the primary sources of local news, information and advertising in the region. The publisher is Cathy Hughes.

Times Media Co. of northwest Indiana based in Munster. Enterprise of the Year in 2014 and finalist in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016. The Times and are Northwest Indiana’s media leaders in local news and information, and has the second largest audience of any website in the state. The publisher is Chris White.

The winner will be announced in December.