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Bloomington Staff Pave Way On Street Funding Policy Debate

City Hall
City staff have set the stage for aldermen to decide whether to approve a four cent per gallon increase in the Bloomington gasoline tax.

Bloomington aldermen gave little indication Monday whether they are likely to approve a 4-cent per gallon increase in a local gasoline tax during a committee of the whole meeting that included the topic.

City staff, meanwhile, gave a history of expenditures on streets and sidewalks dating back to 2014, the year the council approved an existing 4-cent per gallon motor fuel tax for streets. City Manager Tim Gleason tried to make the case the city has worked responsibly to address a backlog of street repairs in recent years.

“You'll see in November at the committee of the whole meeting we will do every year a construction season wrapup. We will put photos on the website, so people can see improvements over time. We will take every opportunity to tell our story better than we have done in the past,” said Gleason.

The city is responsible for maintaining 810 lane miles of streets, or 360 center line miles. Public Works Director Jim Karch explained the difference, saying some streets have two lanes in each direction.

Before 2014 the city used about $4 million in general revenue money. Since then the amount has remained at about that level, though the source of the funds has shifted to the gas tax and a quarter-cent sales tax allocated for streets.

The council had also approved a $10 million, 10-year bond for streets in 2015, but aldermen chose to use some of that money on other operations instead of making budget cuts during a past financial crunch. The city has used general fund revenue to pay the interest on the 2015 bond.

Instead of the past benchmark of $4 million per year, Karch said maintaining streets and sidewalks at their current level has taken $6 million per year. Treatments to extend the life of some pavement has reduced the annual amount, potentially to about $4 million, but Karch said it is not clear whether that number can continue to fall.

The current level of street conditions over the last several years, Karch said, hovers about six out of 10 points an adequacy scale.

Mayor Tari Renner also noted the city can get the blame for roads it cannot fix.

“Some of the roads that are in the worst condition, Veterans Parkway, Route 9, and Business 51, are the responsibility of the state,” said Renner.

Alderman Amelia Buragas said the potential additional 4-cent per gallon gasoline tax would generate a rough estimate of $2.3 million per year for streets and sidewalks. Alderman Scott Black noted growth in the number of hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles means a potential increase would not be spread evenly.

“I have a hard time thinking people driving hybrids pay the equivalent of people driving Hummers. The model is flawed. Perhaps a future model that takes the weight of vehicle into account could do better,” said Black.

Alderman Kim Bray inquired about studies of potential user fees or fees for miles driven, only to be told by Karch and Renner such things are still in development.
Buragas said the council needs to have a discussion about the definition of adequacy for street repair. She said aldermen have not said whether the goal is a six or a four on a 10-point scale, or something else. She said the council needs to decide how to pay for it.

“We absolutely could have done a better job. Many people could say this funding shift is not consistent with our aspirations,” said Buragas.

Karch said staff have presented to the council multiple times on the question using a variety of methodologies.

“We do not have a defined level of service set by council for our streets. The best we can do as a staff is that arterial roads have a higher rating than other roads,” said Karch.

Regarding the gas tax, Renner said 30 percent of it is paid for by people who do not live in city of Bloomington.

Alderman Karen Schmidt raised the possibility of a temporary gas tax increase that could sunset in two years, or one that would be contingent on the Town of Normal passing a similar increase to maintain equivalent prices, but said the concepts came from constituents who are concerned about a competitive disadvantage.

Alderman Jamie Mathy noted the city could save money by hewing to Transportation Commission recommendations for narrower lanes.

“People prefer wider lanes, so they can go faster, but if we stick to narrower people will go slower that will be safer and will save us money on construction materials,” said Mathy.

Mathy also raised the possibility of repairing three-foot sections of pavement such as center lines that have the worst potholes.

"What makes me feel uneasy about additional motor fuel tax is that people will continue to see some potholes."

Karch said that has not been studied well because of the need to add workers to assess pavements, and he has not raised that option with Gleason.

Alderman Mboka Mwilambwe gave no firm signal on the gas tax idea either.

“What makes me feel uneasy about additional motor fuel tax is that people will continue to see some potholes. People will assume work is not getting done. I am curious how we will manage people's expectations,” said Mwilambwe.

“That is a tough one. The larger work that needs to get done is not a one-year project,” replied Karch.

Mwilambwe said people have told him to they favor using any future fund surpluses on roads to get back where we should be.

“That would go a long way to re-establish credibility regardless of the tough times we faced back then (when the council chose to divert bond money to stave off budget cuts),” said Mwilambwe.

Alderman Black said the council has also chosen to chronically underfund historic neighborhood streets.

“And that's a policy choice we have made and we have to live with the consequences,” said Black.

Any potential gasoline tax increase would be part of the budget plan set for a vote in April.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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