December 3, 2009 in Idaho

Idaho roads budget far short of need

Expert advises weaning state from federal funds
By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE – Idaho is now short $211 million a year from what it needs to maintain its roads and bridges in their current, deteriorated condition, a state task force learned Wednesday.

But the task force won’t be proposing fixes right away. The panel, appointed by Gov. Butch Otter, is charged with coming up with proposals by December 2010 – after the next election.

“That was agreed upon before we even got here,” said Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who’s heading 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 and private business people, 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 consultant Tom Warne, former Utah transportation director.

“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. State fuel tax supplies 26 percent of transportation funds, and registration fees 13 percent. Federal dollars make up the rest. “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 road work and to begin making up a backlog estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But after lawmakers refused to go along during the last legislative session, 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.”

Task force member Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, noted that Warne described a multiyear, public involvement process that Utah went through before deciding to make multibillion-dollar investments in 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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