July 8, 2014 in Idaho

UI survey shows Idahoans want roads, bridges fixed, but funding unclear

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE - Idaho’s long-awaited survey on transportation improvements is out from the University of Idaho, and it turns out an overwhelming majority of Idahoans think Idaho’s roads and bridges need big fixes or they’ll fail in the next 10 years.

However, the options to pay for that work that drew support in the survey clearly wouldn’t raise enough money, while bigger-ticket answers, including gas tax increases, drew less support.

“The conclusion I drew is that our elected leaders are going to have to figure out how to raise revenue for something Idaho voters clearly see as important,” said Priscilla Salant, a University of Idaho professor and interim director of the McClure Center for Public Policy, which released the survey Tuesday. “They have their work cut out for them.”

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter had been waiting for the results of the survey before proposing big road fixes, an issue he made a top priority during his first term in office, but abandoned for the past few years after legislative defeats. Otter’s office said Tuesday that he’d have no comment on the survey until he has a chance to review it.

But Wayne Hammon, head of the Idaho Associated General Contractors and Otter’s former budget chief, called the survey results “very favorable,” and said lawmakers could put together a phased-in, multi-pronged transportation improvement package and pass it in their next legislative session.

“I do believe it’s doable this session,” Hammon said. “The big thing that leaped out at me was the vast majority of likely voters in the state know that roads are important, they’re directly related to our economy, and that they’re going to fail in less than 10 years unless we do something about it. That, I think, is very important.”

Otter appointed a task force in 2010 that determined that Idaho needs to spend more than a quarter-billion dollars more a year on its roads and bridges, just to keep them safe and usable.

The survey of 1,062 likely Idaho voters, which was conducted from February to April by the University of Idaho’s Social Science Research Unit, found that only 27 percent believe Idaho’s roads and bridges will be adequate for the state’s needs in 10 years. Ninety-four percent of respondents said Idaho’s system of roads and bridges must be maintained if the economy is to grow, and 85 percent said big fixes are needed to make the state’s roads and bridges safer.

The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent. It was funded entirely by the McClure Center; the University of Washington conducted an external review of the methods used.

“I have good confidence that the data are reliable and credible,” Salant said.

“I think the biggest surprise is that there is more trust in government than you would expect,” she said. “Only 10 percent of likely voters said they would absolutely not vote for tax increases because the government will only waste it. I think that is a remarkably low number. That is, to me, the most remarkable finding in the study. People trust government much more than we think they do.”

The survey asked respondents about nine possible ways to raise money for roads and bridges. The most popular one, drawing 73 percent support, was to tap into current sales taxes on auto parts and tires. But that would simply shift money from the state general fund budget; it wouldn’t add any new money. Second-most popular was increased fees for commercial trucks, at 68 percent; and third was higher car registration fees, at 56 percent.

Fifty-four percent backed a one-time fee on the purchase of new or used vehicles; but just 35 percent favored raising Idaho’s 25 cent per gallon gas tax, which hasn’t increased since 1996.

Even fewer supported toll roads – 27 percent – or charging drivers by the mile, which drew just 23 percent support.

“The easiest solution for today is to double the gas tax,” Hammon said. “Well that is clearly not going to be palatable.” Instead, he said, lawmakers should decide what combination of taxes, user fees and other measures is most appropriate to fund the needs.

“This is a very complex issue – it’s going to require a complex solution,” Hammon said. “It needs to be fair, and it needs to be from multiple pots of money.”


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