Luzerne County’s administration is once again pushing for a $5 vehicle registration fee to help repair county-owned roads and bridges.
The fee has been rejected several times by a county council majority since state legislators authorized the option in 2013, but this time the administration’s argument is bolstered by the state’s willingness to provide a match.
Last year the state Department of Transportation announced it will provide a dollar-for-dollar match on vehicle fee funds spent on bridges, according to a report the administration prepared for discussion at Tuesday’s council work session. The state will match up to $2 million annually in each county that enacted the fee, the report said.
County Manager C. David Pedri said Friday he could not ignore this potential windfall amid county infrastructure needs that far exceed available funds.
The county owns 304 bridges and approximately 128 miles of county roads.
Around 60 percent, or 182, of these bridges are considered “structurally deficient” because one or more of their major structural components — the deck, superstructure and foundation — have cracks, erosion or other evidence of deterioration, county officials have said.
Structurally deficient bridges are considered safe for travel but need costly repairs or replacement to meet current standards, officials have said, noting some inspection findings have resulted in weight limits.
The designated service life of a bridge is approximately 50 years, the administration said.
Of the 304 bridges, 35, or 11.5 percent, are more than a century old, while 187, or 61.5 percent, are 75 to 100 years old. The breakdown of the others: 50-75 years old, 16 bridges; 10-50 years, 50 bridges; less than 10 years, 16 bridges.
The county also has received numerous complaints about the current state of county roads, Pedri said.
State records logged approximately 281,000 registered vehicles eligible for the fee in the county last year, which would yield an estimated $1.4 million annually, not including the state match for bridges.
To date, 20 of the state’s 67 counties have enacted the fee. The revenue must be spent on the construction, reconstruction, maintenance, safety improvement and repair of public highways and bridges.
The state collects the fee and allows vehicle owners to pay $5 instead of $10 if they opt for a two-year registration, the county’s report said.
“We live in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and there are going to be potholes and road work needed all the time,” Pedri said. “I’m going to ask council to review this and will be happy to live with their decision.”
Critics, including some on council, have characterized the fee as a “double tax” on property owners who also own vehicles.
The county also receives other funding for infrastructure. The administration reported these 2017 sources and amounts:
• Liquid Fuels, $1.2 million, for basic maintenance and operating expenses
• Act 13 Marcellus Shale Funding, $379,448, for structurally deficient bridges only
• Act 44, $135,250
• Act 89, $246,914
The federal and state governments also typically provide 95 percent of funding for projects that land on the 12-year Transportation Improvement Plan, or TIP.
Getting projects on the TIP is a challenge due to intense competition for limited slots, Pedri said. The TIP is programmed through 2030, and a new project can’t be added unless another is removed, he said. Many county roads and bridges don’t meet funding eligibility requirements, he said.
Passage of the fee would allow the county to fund one major road or bridge replacement or several minor rehabilitation projects annually without burdening only real estate property owners, the administration said. Renters who own vehicles also will pay to fix county roads and bridges, it said.
Retirees with an annual income under $19,200 are exempt from the fee. Posted in the council agenda at www.luzernecounty.org, the report also lists numerous other exemptions.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.