Opinion

Finishing road projects

Many "Pennies for Progress" road projects are woefully behind schedule, much to the frustration of those affected by construction and those waiting for road improvements. But the proposal to establish a line of credit to move more projects forward appears to be a sensible approach.

York County voters approved two sets of road improvement projects in referendums held in 1997 and in 2003. To help pay for those projects, a penny was added to the local sales tax. York County, in fact, was the first of the state's 46 counties to take advantage of new state legislation enacted in 1997 to allow local governments to raise money for capital projects through a voter-approved local sales tax.

The rationale at the time was that the extra penny sales tax would be relatively painless and would bring revenue from visitors who spent money in the county. It also would signal the state that local residents were willing to sacrifice to improve local roads, which would help coax money for the county from the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank.

But predicting road constructions costs accurately can be difficult. For example, original project estimates for the first phase of Pennies for Progress ended up being around $38 million off, largely because of the rising costs of construction and buying right-of-ways.

Fortunately, local elected officials -- state Sen. Wes Hayes, in particular -- were able to convince the state Highway Commission to approve an $18 million infusion from the Infrastructure Bank to help alleviate the shortfall. The County Council also transferred $8 million in surpluses from other accounts and committed "C" funds, the council's principal discretionary source of road money, to help make up the difference.

Nonetheless, rising construction costs, which parallel a rise in the price of oil, have continued to plague projects. Of the 39 projects originally approved, only seven have been totally completed.

While tax revenues have been steady and strong -- nearly 10 percent above projections -- the problem is one of timing. The county is not permitted to begin new projects until money is in the bank to cover the total costs of that project. So, the county must set aside road money until it has enough to award a new contract.

County Manager Jim Baker offers the example of the county having $20 million on hand for projects. If the county awards a contract for a $15 million project and the next project will cost $10 million, the county can't contract for that project until an additional $5 million comes in.

Baker thinks the county should establish a line of credit so that the money is available to start projects sooner. The borrowed money then would be paid off as tax revenues are collected. This not only would allow the county to get an earlier start on projects, it also would help avoid the rising costs of construction and save money overall.

Growth will make road improvements necessary for years and probably decades to come. County officials expect to go back to voters for a third Pennies for Progress referendum sometime before 2010.

Meanwhile, finding ways to complete existing projects earlier and at a lower overall cost is a smart move.

IN SUMMARY

Proposal to establish a line of credit to move projects forward could save money.

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