BOISE - Idaho motorists are paying more and more of the cost of maintaining the state’s roads, while drivers of heavy trucks are paying less, according to a new state study - though the trucks are causing far more damage to the roads.
Meanwhile, Idaho faces a “widening gap” between its road funding and its needs, experts told Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation funding task force Tuesday, and task force members said the most promising source to fill that gap is a gas tax increase, the very thing Otter failed to persuade lawmakers to endorse for two years running.
“The governor has said, in his view, everything is on the table,” said Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian. Otter appointed the task force last year to do an 18-month study of how to fund the state’s transportation system in the future, and made no funding proposal to this year’s Legislature. The task force is scheduled to make its recommendations by December - which would be after the fall elections, in which Otter is seeking a second term.
Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who’s chairing the task force, said with a road-funding backlog that’s expected to grow to $250 million or more in less than a decade, a gas tax hike may make sense. “When you look at the rankings … it ranked highest in fairness and cost-effectiveness, and it’s ready to go,” he said. “You’re not hiring one state employee.” It may be an “imperfect” funding source as cars get increasingly better gas mileage, he said, but it’s a do-able one.
“I think we’ve got our arms around what we think the needs are going to be,” Little said. “This is a big deal - you’ve got to put in a long-term plan to implement it. Having a credible messenger that comes and says, ‘We really need this,’ that’s a big part of it. We really do need this.”
Planning for future road funding is complicated by the equity question addressed in the new state cost allocation study unveiled Tuesday. Prepared by Battelle Group, a consulting firm based in Richland, Wash., the study identified a clear trend in Idaho: “More and more overpayment on the part of automobiles and pickup trucks, and more underpayment on the part of combination trucks,” said Patrick Balducci of Battelle Group.
Depending on how the figures are viewed, drivers of passenger cars are overpaying by as much as 47 percent, pickup drivers are overpaying by up to 18 percent, and heavy combination semi-trucks are underpaying by as much as 33 percent.
Balducci described the trend as “a shift that had been under way for some period of time,” stemming from the repeal of Idaho’s weight-distance tax on trucks in 2001 after a lawsuit. Since then, heavy trucks have paid only registration fees.
The consultant told the task force that it matters how a truck’s weight is distributed on axles, but trucks do far more damage to pavement than cars. Under questioning from task force members, Balducci said a rule of thumb is that one fully loaded axle on a big truck does the same damage to pavement as 10,000 passenger cars.
Task force members were stunned by the figure, but Balducci said, “It’s been measured. For years, millions of trucks have been measured. These are engineering calculations that have been studied by the federal government beginning in the 1950s and continuing today.”
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said that’s different from what she’s heard on the Senate Transportation Committee for the past 10 years about new technology in truck design doing a better job of spreading out the weight and limiting road damage.
“I have some questions that I need to have answered,” she said.
Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said the study is “all good data,” but said, “We need to, No. 1, decide, do we want to have trucks and cars at parity?” He said the economic impact of raising fees on trucking firms could be harmful.
Jim Coleman, the Panhandle representative on the Idaho Transportation Board and a task force member, said he still believes that in some parts of the state, lighter vehicles with studded snow tires do more damage to roads than heavy trucks.
A subcommittee of the task force will review the new study for the next month, then report back to the full task force with recommendations.
As for a possible gas tax increase, Coleman said it’s likely “only part of the answer” for addressing Idaho’s overall road needs, and Hagedorn said, “We can’t raise gas taxes enough. We can’t raise registrations enough. We can’t tax rental cars enough. I think the rest of the task force is going to come to the same conclusion we in the Legislature did - wow, we’re way behind, and we maybe need to start to incrementally fix this. But I don’t believe we’re going to have one big fix here.”
Keough said that while a gas tax hike “may be perceived as a fair way to go, it’s not necessarily palatable given the state of the economy that we’re in, and I think that distinction needs to be made.”
Keith Allred, Otter’s Democratic challenger, said the new cost allocation study validates his longstanding criticism that Otter has been favoring “special interests” over Idaho citizens, particularly when the governor proposed a big car registration fee increase but only a small hike for trucks; Otter wanted a study before further changing truck fees. That proposal, like the gas tax increase, failed to pass the Legislature.