As a young boy growing up near Shorterville in east Henry County, I don’t remember much about the 1950’s…maybe a few sporting events like Don Larsen’s perfect game in the ’56 World Series and Mickey Mantle winning the triple crown that same year (events that birthed a southern boy’s life long fandom of the New York Yankees.) I also remember a few unpleasant events like the divorce of my parents in 1958 and my sister and I moving in with our grandparents.
History tells us of a program of that era that I do not remember. Governor ‘Big Jim’ Folsom implemented his ‘Farm to Market Program’ – a visionary plan to pave at least 100 miles of roads in each of Alabama’s 67 counties as well as over 18,000 miles of roads state wide. His program and Governor Robert Bentley’s current ATRIP program are two of the greatest boosters of public transportation and economic development in the history of the Wiregrass region.
But, sadly, in the years that have passed since the ‘50’s, many of those ‘farm to market’ roads have been neglected because they do not qualify for any federal funding. The sad fact is that we have too little local revenue to properly maintain Henry County’s 700 miles of county roads. Only 170 miles of those roads are eligible for some type federal funding. The remaining 530 miles receive no outside assistance – every penny we spend to maintain these roads must be found locally. All 700 miles are maintained by a crew of 22. We are losing the battle to save many of these roads. Without a new funding source there is no question that the next step is to return some of our paved roads to the dirt and mud conditions that ‘Big Jim’ promised to eliminate. It is already taking place in other counties.
I’m a fiscal conservative. The answer to every problem is not in raising taxes. But in this case, there is no other alternative. Two current bills before the Alabama legislature deal with funding to help our county roads. The first bill (HB394) would increase fuel taxes by six cents per gallon – a number based on the average of fuel taxes in the four states contiguous to Alabama. The second bill (SB180) stipulates that every penny of these needed funds would go to the maintenance of roads and bridges – no new buildings, no new hiring, no salary increases, no equipment purchases, etc. It would all be spent where it is needed most – on county roads. It would also require us to publish our plans for the use of the money – i.e., which roads, what type work, when will it be done, how much will be spent, etc. I’ve been an advocate of those type transparency measures from day one.
It’s easy to say ‘no new taxes!’ Anyone can make that statement – no one wants to pay more taxes. The real question is whether those who say ‘no’ can actually offer an alternative plan. That’s the hard part. It’s worth noting that many of those most vocal in their opposition to the bill have something to gain by it not passing. Their position is that this legislation would cost consumers $190 million or so annually. Let’s translate those numbers to an example we can all understand. My wife and I drove a total of 40,000 miles last year. Our two vehicles average about 24 mpg. The six cents per gallon fuel increase would cost us $8.00 per month. One blown tire, one bent rim or one front end alignment from an encounter with a pot hole would cost us more than the tax we would pay in a full year.
This legislation is supported by a diverse group of stakeholders through the Alliance for Alabama’s Infrastructure which includes the Business Council of Alabama, many chambers of commerce, the Alabama Trucking Association and the Association of County Commissions of Alabama. They will pay much more at the pump than most of us, but they are supporting it anyway.
We’ve cut everywhere possible in Henry County. I’ve always been told that if you ‘take care of the dimes, the dollars will take care of themselves’ – and that’s the approach I take every day. It’s not easy finding solutions. I urge you to put some thought and study into this. I certainly respect the opinions of those who have a different view. If you are of a differing opinion, all I ask is that you help find the solution. We in Henry County are willing to listen.
Henry County Probate Judge and Commission Chair