There are road reconstruction projects Vanderburgh County can't pay for -- and then there's the narrow, winding, nearly mile-long stretch of Kansas Road from Indiana 57 to Old Petersburg Road.

In some places the two-lane road goes just six yards across. Traffic exploded there in recent years with the widening of Green River Road up to Kansas, the area's population and housing growth and changes to Oak Hill Road as part of Evansville Regional Airport's runway reconfiguration. Now motorists -- about 4,500 a day, according to local planners -- navigate past subdivisions, cemeteries and wooded areas with one eye on an unnervingly persistent stream of opposing traffic and the other on pavement drop-offs.

"When bigger trucks come, I've actually had to go off the road sometimes," neighborhood resident Pearl Kemp said at the 57-Kansas intersection last week. "A lot of people also like to walk down this road. It makes it harder."

The county's engineers have heared this song for years. They say rebuilding Kansas from 57 to Petersburg -- making it wider, improving the curves and the Petersburg Road intersection -- is the single most pressing of Vanderburgh County's unfunded road reconstruction needs.

But there's no source of local tax dollars reliable enough to pay for the project -- not when even putting up the necessary 20 percent match for federal aid would cost $1 million or more, by the county engineer's estimate. Not even if the county was breaking up the payments into yearly installments.

There is a weary resignation in the voices of the men charged with prioritizing Vanderburgh County's road reconstruction and paving needs when such projects come up. The county's chief roads engineer and highway superintendent must manage shrinking pots of money meant to pay for expanding needs, but they don't make the policy decisions. The costs of some materials have risen sharply while revenue has flattened or declined, leaving the county to rely on special appropriations from the state to get projects done.

This year, it was $2.3 million as part of a statewide, one-time distribution from local income taxes held in reserve by the state. $1 million went to the county engineering department, which leveraged it as Vanderburgh County's 50 percent match to win another million from the state's new Community Crossings grant program. The Community Crossings money is not intended for major reconstruction projects such as Kansas Road. The money was devoted instead to four road and bridge projects on St. Joseph Ave., Red Bank Road and Daisy Lane.

The other million in local income tax money went to the Vanderburgh County Highway Department, which plowed it into 17 small paving projects.

Next year, Highway Superintendent Scot Wichser hopes, it will be some other form of state funding. Wichser and his in-house paving crews aren't budgeted for another infusion of state taxpayer money in 2017 -- but he has kept an eye on developments in Indianapolis.

"We don't know what the Statehouse is going to do.They have this committee, you know," he said.

The committee -- the Funding Indiana's Roads for a Stronger, Safer Tomorrow (FIRSST) Task Force -- began meeting in July in search of long-term, sustainable ways to pay for roads and other transportation projects. FIRSST, of which Rep. Holli Sullivan (R-Evansville) is a member, is expected to issue its recommendations for legislative action on Monday.

Estimating the state needs to raise up to $1.5 billion annually to maintain roads and bridges and invest in new projects in economic growth areas, legislative leaders have suggested the 18-cent per-gallon state gasoline tax, last raised in 2003, could be adjusted for inflation and automatically increased thereafter. Other ideas on the table include reallocating revenue from the 7 percent sales tax on gasoline and imposing new user fees, such as highway tolls.

Sullivan, whose legislative district includes parts of northern and eastern Vanderburgh County, said FIRSST members know roads funding has to go beyond the current catch-as-catch-can approach and its reliance on one-time appropriations. But she's not giving any previews.

"There won't be any detailed amounts of money to any particular entity or area," Sullivan said. "You'll see some recommendations for a legislative strategy on ensuring that we take care of the infrastructure we have and how we go about prioritizing projects in the future. I think all that will be a very productive discussion for our state this session."

'It has dropped and dropped'

It is possible to measure with some precision what Vanderburgh County ought to be spending on its roads.

Over several months last year, Columbus, Ohio-based transportation services firm Transmap electronically collected data about the condition of roads in Vanderburgh and Warrick counties and Henderson County, Kentucky. Working on a primarily federally funded contract with the Evansville Metropolitan Planning Organization, Transmap used digital imagery and mapping to craft a "pavement condition index" of county-maintained roads. The company drove every inch of those roads and used local data to create a "deterioration curve" measuring how quickly asphalt and concrete roads are going bad, according to MPO.

Transmap's estimate: Vanderburgh County needs to spend $2.63 million a year just to maintain its roads at their current levels.

But left to its own devices, without any infusion of state funds, the county isn't positioned to spend that kind of money. It's a combination of flat or reduced revenue plus rising costs.

2015 -- when the state did not ride to the rescue with a pile of Indiana taxpayer cash -- illustrates the point.

The county spent just $301,491 on actual road repaving and resurfacing, according to the engineering and highway departments' 2015 Annual Operational Report to the state. That work was done by the Highway Department's in-house paving crews and equipment. The Engineering Department, which engages construction companies to do roadwork, bid out a contract for milling and resurfacing an asphalt road in Keystone Subdivision -- but that was it.

The rest of the $1.7 million budget for the county's Local Roads and Streets fund -- the account from which the vast majority of roadwork has been funded in recent years -- was devoted to materials, equipment repair and a host of smaller expenses. Those include power bills for traffic lights, waste disposal and the county's share of the city-county traffic department, which does road striping and traffic signal work. More than a half-million dollars was encumbered into 2016 -- including the Engineering Department's $175,000 project at Keystone, which wasn't actually completed until this spring.

Just two years ago, County Council members gave the Highway Department more than $1.1 million for paving and materials -- but in 2015 that funding plummeted to $737,500.

"It has dropped and dropped," Wichser said.

The Engineering Department was allotted $250,000 for its contracts with construction companies in 2015 -- down from $750,000 just nine years before.

Wichser cautioned that the money available this year -- inflated as it is by the state's millions -- is an outlier. The extra million in local income tax money his department got from the state inflated the department's budget for work and materials to $1.85 million -- more than the in-house paving crews have had in years.

Next year is another story. An uncertain one. Like this year, the Highway Department is slated to receive $850,000 in local money -- but Wichser produced a chart showing a bold "$0" in the column where the state's $1 million for 2016 appeared.

And that $850,000 will be spread desperately thin, Wichser said.

"I'd love to spend all that money on roads, but if we did that we couldn't buy salt, we couldn't buy crack seal, we couldn't buy rock, we couldn't buy the lumber, paint, sand, beet juice (sugar beet-based melting accelerator) we need," he said.

Highway Department officials will set aside about $350,000 for the hot mix needed for paving. As the April-to-September orange barrel season wears on, Wichser will make probably his most important judgment call of the year. How to spend the rest of the money? Are more materials needed, or is there enough cash left over to

"We've got to have salt, or people would be screaming," the highway chief said.

The problem is how much all those materials cost.

The price of asphalt is notoriously volatile, with changes sometimes triggered by very small increments in demand. But asphalt prices are expected to hold steady at about $60 a ton. Maybe even a little less.

The Highway Department expects to spend nearly a quarter of next year's $850,000 just keeping up with market-driven road salt prices. Going at $60 a ton just four years ago, salt is projected to cost $72.75. Citrus solvent -- the stuff that cleans asphalt off pavers, shovels and rakes -- is up to $18.18 per gallon this year when it was $12.55 in 2013.

Wichser is pinning his hopes for relief on the state. There's no guarantee the County Council would come across with more money even if he made an impassioned plea.

"We're going to have to kind of wait and see if the Legislature's going to do anything," he said.

'I wanted to make sure'

John Stoll has been Vanderburgh County's chief roads engineer under Republican and Democratic-controlled boards of county commissioners, earning high praise from both while surviving several changes of party control. He has been the county engineer for 23 years.

To Stoll, it seems an impossibly long time ago that the county could afford to pay for a major road project with anything other than Tax Increment Financing district proceeds. He recalls that the county plowed some money from the Local Roads and Streets account into construction of a four-lane extension of University Parkway, extending it from Marx Road up to Diamond Avenue. The project was finished in 2012.

Stoll can hardly imagine the county coming up with the hundreds of thousands of dollars that would be required annually to match federal aid for the Kansas Road project. The notion seems preposterous.

"There's just not a consistent revenue stream to be able to do a project like that from start to finish -- if federal money was available," he said.

Tax Increment Financing district money is a brighter subject for the veteran roads planner.

TIF districts, as they are called, are funded by a portion of property tax payments by businesses within the districts. They are widely regarded as Vanderburgh County's most stable funding source for roads projects.

The county has used TIF money to pay for most of its recent major road reconstruction projects. That's how it funds the ongoing project to rebuild Green River Road's northern sections. The 2014-15 reconstruction of Green River from Surrey Way to Kansas was paid for with nearly $6 million from the Burkhardt-Green River TIF district, which occupies much of eastern Vanderburgh County and areas north of the Lloyd Expressway.

The TIF district's coffers are bulging with cash -- $18.2 million, much of which is committed to the Green River project.

Casting about for a way to break out of the funding constraints he faces, Stoll checked with county attorneys to see whether TIF district money could be used to pay for Kansas Road's 57-to-Petersburg section. It couldn't. The road isn't located in a TIF district.

Stoll knew that, he said. But when you need the money, you check anyway.

"I wanted to make sure there wasn't any provision in the TIF laws that would allow TIF money to be used there," he said.

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