The key to smoother streets in Lincoln could be a bump in the city sales tax.
After months of study, the mayor’s 25-member transportation coalition Thursday released the results of its examination of Lincoln’s transportation problems — and its recommended solutions.
The biggest challenge? Each year, the city falls about $33 million short in transportation funding, said co-chair Bob Caldwell of NEBCO.
That includes $21 million for road maintenance, $7 million in signal upgrades and other improvements, and $5 million for new streets.
“Nobody raised their hand and wanted to do property taxes, nobody raised their hand and wanted to do more wheel taxes,” Caldwell said. “They think we should spread the burden a little wider.”
So the Citizens' Transportation Coalition is recommending the city increase the sales tax to raise $20 million to $28 million annually — a move that would capture tax dollars from out-of-town visitors and commuters.
Lincoln voters would have to approve an increase. The city is already collecting an additional quarter-cent sales tax to fund four fire stations and install a new emergency radio system, but that tax expires in September.
The coalition didn’t specify whether it believes the city should levy a quarter-cent or half-cent increase, but the math is clear. A quarter-cent would raise just $12 million a year, while a half-cent would generate about $24 million — right in the range of the group’s recommendation.
“So that gives you an indication of where they are,” said Miki Esposito, the group’s other co-chair and director of Public Works and Utilities.
To bridge the rest of the gap, the coalition is recommending a series of other changes, including: more regular maintenance to extend pavement life; an increase in contracting with private companies so the city can focus resources where they’re needed; changes to the impact fee system; and allowing street design flexibility — for instance, reducing the width of a lane from 12 feet to 11 can save $500,000 per mile in construction costs.
The coalition is also urging the city to adopt 24 best practices, including developing a citizen advisory council, streamlining its business processes and making traffic signal timing more efficient.
The group — made up of community leaders, city staff and elected officials — started its work in early August with a bus tour of the city.
They felt immediately what they were up against.
“We went down roads on that bus that were silky smooth, but let me tell you, that was very few of the roads,” Caldwell said. “We went into some neighborhoods that looked like those roads hadn’t been touched in a long time.”
With the help of a $450,000 contract with consultants, the group dove into city policies and plans and researched how so-called peer cities — such as Omaha, Columbia, Missouri, and Fort Collins, Colorado — tackle transportation needs, and what they pay.
It learned those other cities spend an average of $10,000 per lane mile on maintenance, while Lincoln spends about $2,400 per mile on its 2,600 lane miles.
And it learned streets are expensive: $12 million to build a mile of a four-lane arterial; $600,000 to resurface a lane mile; and $300,000 to upgrade a signaled intersection.
The additional $20 million to $28 million is needed to pay for existing and future transportation needs not covered by state and federal funds, the city’s wheel tax and impact fees.
“That’s what’s going to help us bridge that gap and fix our roads,” Caldwell said.
The coalition officially ended its work Thursday, and its report is now in the hands of Mayor Chris Beutler and the City Council.
“They need to dive in and engage with each other to come up with something they’re comfortable with,” Esposito said.