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News Flash: Idaho Needs to Fix Its Roads

As a lead-in to a belated public hearing on road funding to be held in Boise later this afternoon, Idaho Governor Butch Otter and the Idaho Transportation Board held an additional conference this morning to hear perspectives from sources ranging from the federal government, the Department of Environmental Quality, and the state of Utah.

Otter, who was criticized for holding six similar meetings around the state this summer while neglecting to hold one in Boise, told New West that a seventh meeting had always been planned but that scheduling it was delayed based on the availability of speakers such as Idaho Senator Mike Crapo (R) and the new administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, now in his sixth day on the job.

“This is not a local problem,” Otter declared. “This is a statewide problem. It’s not a northern or southern problem. It’s not rural or urban. It’s not partisan.”

A major sticking point in this year’s Legislative session was finding funding for road maintenance. While the Legislature has been using GARVEE bonds for constructing new roads, there is no funding for what Otter claimed was $200 million in needed maintenance for Idaho’s 11,964 miles of roads and 1,777 bridges. As one way of funding the shortfall, Otter proposed a $150 registration fee for vehicles, which he then withdrew in a fit of pique after the Legislature criticized the suggestion.

This year, Otter is taking his literal road show to the people, holding public hearings in Caldwell, Coeur d’Alene, Lewiston, Idaho Falls, Pocatello, Twin Falls, and now Boise, drawing about 100 people per session. Like a similar set of hearings last year on property taxes, the series of hearings is presumably intended to help legislators determine which methods of revenue generation are likely to produce the fewest complaints.

At the same time, the Legislature has had concerns about how ITD spends the funds it has, even holding up the department’s budget this year until it had passed an allocation of more than half a million dollars for an audit of the department by the Office of Performance Evaluation. The first phase of that audit, due by the beginning of the legislative session in January, 2009, is on schedule, director Rakesh Mohan told New West, and includes a comparison between ITD and similar agencies in other states, as well as selecting contractors and outsources. A second and third phase, examining outsourcing and cross-cutting issues in more detail, may also be scheduled after the issuing of the report in January.

According to Crapo, the federal government pays 56-57% of road costs in Idaho, with the state paying 41% and other sources paying 2%. In comparison, in Utah, the federal government pays 15.3%, 48% from the state general fund, and 36.7% from the “state transportation fund” consisting of fuel taxes and registration fees, said Carlos Braceras, deputy director, Utah Department of Transportation. Idaho is one of the few states that funds its roads solely through fuel taxes and registration fees, Idaho Senate Transportation Chair John McGee (R-Caldwell) told New West.

The current six-year $286 billion highway allocation bill is scheduled to expire in September, Crapo said, and due to the current political climate it is not clear whether new appropriations bills will get through Congress before it adjourns. Moreover, due to its low population and large area, Idaho is a “donee” state, meaning it receives more in federal funding than it pays out: $1.40 for every dollar. The ranking member and chair of the transportation committee are from “donor” states, meaning they receive less in federal funding than they pay in, and are working to change the allocation formula to get donor states more money, he said.

States are facing a 30% cutback in federal funding — which they would either need to eat, find a way to replace on the state level, or encourage Congress to reject — according to John Horsley. executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Moreover, these potential cuts in funding are happening at the same time as huge increases in maintenance and construction costs — 62% in five years, Horsley said. Liquid asphalt alone has risen from $175 to $1,000 a ton, just since December, said Stuart Davis, executive director of the Idaho Association of Highway Districts, noting that in some areas, jurisdictions are tearing up the asphalt and letting the roads go back to gravel because they can’t afford to maintain them.

Idaho is also facing stringent new restrictions from the Environmental Protection Agency due to increased ozone levels resulting from vehicles, said Toni Hardesty, director of the Department of Environmental Quality. The department is currently working with the EPA in hopes of using 2007-2009 as a three-year window for testing, leaving out the seriously bad year of 2006. If this can’t be done, and Idaho is declared to be “in nonattainment,” restrictions on businesses and transportation will be put into place for the next twenty years, even if Idaho achieves attainment, she warned.

Just what the proposed solution will be to all this isn’t clear. Tom Madison — in his sixth day on the job as administrator of the Federal Highway Administration within the U.S. Department of Transportation — came to lobby for a proposal to reform highway allocation funding called Fight Gridlock Now!. Horsley has a nationwide proposal for $20 billion for transit, $25 billion in freight fees, $50 billion in tax credit bonds, and $100 billion in new highway user fees. Darrell V. Manning, chairman, Idaho Transportation Board — who noted that at the current rate of replacement, bridges would need to last more than twice their projected lifespan of 50 years — noted that Idaho fuel taxes haven’t been increased since 1996 and registration fees haven’t been increased since 1997, signalling that Idahoans might expect rises in either or both.

A plan had been floated last year to set registration based on factors such as vehicle size, age, and weight, but never became a solid proposal. For example, studies have indicated that heavy trucks cause disproportionately more damage to road than cars — in other words, a 40-ton truck could cause as much damage to a typical road as 60,000 1-ton cars.

Other possibilities include local option registration fees or fuel fees — not the local option taxes proposed for last session for public transit and new roads — a “propulsion energy tax” that would take alternative fuels into account, and requiring local jurisdictions to pay for sidewalks, bike lanes, and other non-road highway components, said Idaho Representative Ken Roberts (R-Donnelly).

This afternoon’s session will reportedly include other possibilities, McGee told New West.

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One comment

  1. It’s even worse than you report. Many of our counties that used to receive significant amounts of money from timber revenues, and more recently Craig/Wyden funds, are having to slash their roads budgets this year. Adams County, with 1376 square miles within its boundaries and a population of 3,485, has cut $450,000 from this years roads and bridges budget. Ada county (Boise) won’t be affected by this, but the counties with significant Forest Service acreage within their counties are going to be very hard hit.