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Study says cars overpay for roads

Wed., July 28, 2010

Gas tax may be best fix, Idaho panel suggests

BOISE – Idaho motorists pay more and more of the cost of maintaining the state’s roads, while drivers of heavy trucks pay less, according to a new state study – although the trucks cause 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. 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 Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary. Otter appointed the task force last year to study how to fund the state’s transportation system in the future. The task force is scheduled to make its recommendations by December – after the election in which Otter is seeking a second term.

Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who’s leading 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. It may be an “imperfect” funding source as cars get increasingly better gas mileage, he said, but it’s a doable one.

“Having a credible messenger that comes and says, ‘We really need this,’ that’s a big part of it,” Little said. “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 Richland consulting firm, 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 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.

A rule of thumb, the consultant told the task force, 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.”

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 the economic impact of raising fees on trucking firms could be harmful.

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.


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