Idaho

No Idaho roads fix this year

Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little, right, presides over a meeting of the governor's transportation funding task force on Wednesday. The panel won't be proposing fixes for Idaho roads in upcoming legislative session; members said its work will take longer than that. (Betsy Russell)
Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little, right, presides over a meeting of the governor's transportation funding task force on Wednesday. The panel won't be proposing fixes for Idaho roads in upcoming legislative session; members said its work will take longer than that. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Idaho is now short $211 million a year from what it should be spending just to maintain its roads and bridges in their current, deterioriated condition, a state task force heard Wednesday as it struggled to determine how the state can do better.

However, it won’t be proposing fixes in the coming year. The panel, appointed by Gov. Butch Otter, is charged with coming up with proposals by December of 2010, a full year from now and a date that’s after the next election.

“That was agreed upon before we even got here,” said Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who’s chairing the task force. “We’re just trying to be prudent and looking forward.”

Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, said, “We’re taking a deeper look, a more in-depth look at all the options. … It’s going to take some time for that process.”

The task force, which includes state lawmakers, transportation officials, private business people and more, heard the latest numbers Wednesday from the Idaho Transportation Department and local transportation officials, and got an overview of what other states are doing from former Utah transportation director-turned-consultant Tom Warne.

“Most states are very hesitant about doing anything with transportation funding in this climate,” Warne told the group.

He also warned that the big increases in federal transportation funding Idaho’s seen in the past are unlikely to be repeated in the next federal transportation bill. That’s especially bad news for Idaho, which he said is the 12th-most reliant state on federal funding for transportation, which now makes up 52 percent of Idaho’s state transportation program. State fuel tax supplies 26 percent, and registration fees, 13 percent. The least reliant states are Wyoming, 13 percent, and Oregon, 17 percent.

“The most important message I can share with any state leaders is that they cannot rely on the federal government to solve their transportation problems,” Warne said. “Each state must take control of its own transportation future.”

Otter has pushed lawmakers for the past two years to raise gas taxes and vehicle registration fees to pay for more roadwork in the state, and begin making up a backlog estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But after lawmakers refused to go along by the end of the state’s second-longest legislative session ever last spring, Otter appointed the task force to take an 18-month look at the problem.

Tom Cole, ITD’s chief engineer, said if the state’s goal is to get away from the “worst-first” approach to fixing roads and bridges and start gradually improving their condition, it’s $270 million a year short.

“What we’re learning is the cost of doing nothing,” Little said. “The cost of doing nothing is we’re going to have a bigger hole down the road.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, a task force member, noted that Warne described a long, multi-year, public involvement process that Utah went through before deciding to make multibillion-dollar investments in upgrading its transportation system. That included a gas tax increase, state borrowing, and investing billions of state general funds into roads.

The task force still is struggling to define the needs, Little said, before it looks at how to raise revenue.

Said Keough, “Sometimes that takes repetition and time. … This year, it’s not going to happen because of the economy, but it’s not a wasted effort - it’s a preparatory effort.”



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