US small towns: beware of states bearing 'gifts'

It was the kind of gift that this tiny town did not want but could not really refuse. World had come down from the Iowa Department of Transportation that the halfmile stretch of rural P66 running through the center of town was to be transferred from state to local jurisdiction because it carried mostly local traffic.

Thor's 200 residents, concerned about where they would get the maintenance money when the town already had too many bills, at once branded the move "unfair."

"They just wanted to dump it on us and have us sign a contract agreeing to it ," recalls Mayor Laurence Bair. "They don't ask you if you want it or not."

Thor's "gift" is part of a statewide transfer effort affecting 1,400 miles of roads. After a close look at the type, volume, and distance traveled of traffic on Iowa's extensive road system, highway officials -- in accordance with a 1978 decision by the Legislature -- have been handing back some of the less-traveled sections to cities and counties and picking up from them a few of the more heavily traveled stretches.

While the Legislature claims its primary motivation was to put the responsibility for road upkeep and management where it logically belongs, it is not totally incidental that the financially hard-pressed Iowa Highway Division saves some money in the process. Like every other state, Iowa is caught between the inflationary jump of road maintenance costs and falling revenue from gasoline taxes as motorists drive less and turn to more fuel-efficient cars.

It is this apparent buck-passing of the state's financial burden that has some of the counties and cities on the receiving end less than pleased about their gifts.

Thor, for instance, first objected that the official traffic count must have been taken on a lazy midsummer day. Residents insisted that P66 is a prime shortcut for traffic heading south to Fort Dodge -- particularly during the harvest season, when tractors and trailers sometimes run bumper to bumper.

When that appeal fell flat, townspeople concentrated on trying to ensure that the state put the road in top shape before handing it over. But the state opted for a bargain repair job, having its own road crew fill in the cracks with tar rather than finance a bid by an outside contractor at four times the cost, which would have included blacktopping.

"We made a mistake; we should have insisted they do more," says Mayor Bair, a retired machinist-welder who lives in a mobile home on the north side of town and says he helped lay the original cement in P66 some 40 years ago.

One prime difficulty, he says, is that the traffic brings the town no revenue. Trucks rarely stop at the town restaurant or gas station, and there is no local police department to fine speeders.

Thor will reluctantly accept its gift. But town fathers say they will sign no contract.

"You don't buck the state and federal government," concludes the mayor."We're stuck with maintaining a road that's heavily abused and asking very few people to pay for it."

Most towns rate some federal help and -- according to population, not road mileage -- a share of state road-use funds. But usually they must lean heavily on local property taxes as well.

In all, the Iowa transfers affect only 5 percent of the state road network. One hope is that the shortage of highway dollars available may force a decision to close off or limit access to a few of the less-used roads, which are costly to maintain.

Many states now and then transfer jurisdiction over individual roads, but Iowa so far stands alone in its across-the-board approach. Tight finances, however, may force others to take a fresh look at following suit.

"The whole question of allocation of roads, and who should be responsible for which ones, is under discussion, and it's certainly possible that other states may choose to do what Iowa did," says Francis Francois, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials.

"We're seeing a trend of states getting out of highway systems and of locals -- whether counties or municipalities -- picking up more urban and rural mileage ," confirms Joan Bauerlein of the Federal Highway Administration's planning and program office. "It shows up very definitely in investment patterns.States used to provide 55 percent of all the funding for the entire highway system. But now their share has slipped below 50 percent while that of federal and local government has come up."

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