November 27, 2010 in Opinion

Editorial: Leaders must show spine to fix Idaho roads


It’s just one poll, but it effectively captures what Idaho lawmakers are up against when trying to raise money to build and maintain highways, roads and bridges across the state.

Moore Information conducted the survey in October to gauge possible support for “sin taxes” on cigarettes and alcohol, and Idahoans indicated interest. But when it came to other revenue opportunities and spending cuts, forget it. They strongly rejected a boost in the sales, income or gasoline taxes, and were even more adamantly opposed to spending cuts for roads, health care and schools.

So, short of declaring driving a sin, what can legislators hope to do for transportation funding?

Apparently, the answer is nothing, for now.

Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation task force spent 18 months figuring how much money the state needs and how to go about raising it. On Tuesday, the group announced that the state needs to spend an additional $534 million a year and listed many options for finding the money.

That was the easy part.

Now the state’s leaders must find the political will to pursue some of the suggestions, because it is unlikely federal money will be available for a bailout. Otter and key legislators have already responded by saying they will not seek more road revenue until the economy recovers. But even then, it will take more fortitude than Idaho governors and legislators have shown in quite some time.

State leaders have a history of flinching when it comes to directly charging motorists for the upkeep of roads. The state gasoline tax is 25 cents a gallon and hasn’t budged since 1996 (it’s 37 cents in Washington state).

Meanwhile, the cost of construction and materials has risen considerably. Hence, the state has a backlog that will continue to grow, and that’s particularly distressing in a sparsely populated state where mass transit makes little sense.

To his credit, Otter has pushed for gas tax increases, but he’s been unsuccessful. His recent opponent in the governor’s race, Keith Allred, proposed lowering the gas tax and offsetting that with heavier fees for truckers. The task force agrees that heavier trucks do not pay their fair share when it comes to the wear and tear on roads, but that alone would not raise enough money. However, the idea is in line with the pattern of figuring out ways to charge somebody else for the roads used by all Idaho motorists.

Delaying the solutions or denying the problem has landed the state in a huge rut. To get an idea of how bad the problem is, the state would need to raise the gas tax by 66 cents a gallon to cover the needs identified by the task force. Obviously, it will take a combination of answers, with vehicle registration and trucking fees as possible complements to a gas tax increase.

The slow economy is giving lawmakers legitimate cover to avoid the problem for now. But while they await the recovery, they need to start spreading the news that it will be Idaho motorists who will have to come up with the bulk of the money to keep the roads safe and commerce moving.

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