BOISE – After months of hearings and reports, an interim committee of the Idaho Legislature charged with re-examining truck registration fees in Idaho – in the wake of a 2010 state report that showed truckers are underpaying for their impact on Idaho roads, while motorists are overpaying – wrapped up its business Thursday, deciding not to recommend any changes.
“Somebody’s going to be concerned on either side,” said House Transportation Chairman Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, who co-chaired the interim panel. “For us to level the playing field between apples and oranges is impossible.”
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter convened a task force that reported in 2011 that the state needed to spend $262 million more a year just to preserve its roads and bridges as is, and $543 million more a year if it also wanted to make needed improvements for safety and capacity.
Since then, lawmakers and the governor have fought about how to approach that goal. This year, the Legislature approved a bonding plan to add lanes in certain high-priority highway corridors, and a $15 million shift from the state general fund to road work.
In 2015, in a conference committee at the end of a long and bitter legislative session, lawmakers agreed on a 7-cent gas tax hike, increases in vehicle registration fees, and several smaller changes, to raise an additional $94 million a year for road maintenance.
Truck fees weren’t addressed, despite a state-commissioned cost-allocation study, included in the governor’s task force report, that estimated that drivers of passenger cars in Idaho pay 8 percent more than they should, given their impact on roads, while combination trucks pay 14 percent less than they should.
Idaho used to have a “ton-mile” tax for roads, but it was ruled unconstitutional in a 1997 lawsuit filed by trucking companies who charged it was inequitable, so it was repealed.
The 2015 compromise legislation, HB 312, declared that it was the “intent of the Legislature” to impose a new registration fee on commercial trucks to take into account their weight and the distance they travel. The new weight-distance tax would be imposed, the bill said, “on or before Jan. 1, 2019.”
Nothing happened for the next two years. But during the 2017 legislative session, Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, the Senate transportation chairman, sponsored a resolution calling for this year’s interim committee to study a weight-distance tax.
The panel, co-chaired by Brackett and Palmer, began meeting in August, and held its final meeting on Thursday. At the August meeting, Brackett said the sense of the committee was that they didn’t want to consider anything that might raise revenue – any proposal would have to be “revenue-neutral.”
“This system by itself is complicated enough that we didn’t need to throw in an additional item to look at,” like raising revenue, said Rep. Jason Monks, R-Caldwell.
Palmer said research presented to the committee showed Idaho’s truck registration fees already are higher than those in most states.
As for the trucks vs. cars question, Brackett said, “In the governor’s task force, we did do a cost allocation study, but we didn’t do anything with it. It wasn’t part of the committee’s charge, and so we didn’t take it on.”
On Thursday, some members questioned why the panel would do anything, if it wasn’t going to recommend more revenue or address the trucks vs. cars cost split. Idaho’s transportation system is set up as a “user-pay” system, where user fees, mainly consisting of fuel taxes and registration fees, fund roads, rather than the state’s general fund.
Palmer also co-chaired a legislative interim committee in 2016 that studied child deaths under Idaho’s faith-healing exemption, which held hearings that drew emotional testimony, and then decided to make no recommendations to the Legislature for changes.
“Sometimes you study things and decide maybe you don’t need to make a change at this point,” Palmer said Thursday. “If somebody on this committee sees a problem, they can always bring a piece of legislation at any time. Lots of information got put out there, and that’s good.”
Sen. Mark Nye, D-Pocatello, said, “I’m disappointed the committee did not get more done on this critical issue. We must continue to work toward achieving a fair system for everyone who uses Idaho’s roads.”
Scott Wilson, of Texas-based D’Artagnan Consulting, which specializes in user-based transportation revenue solutions, told the panel that about half of all road maintenance costs are fixed, and related to the effects of rain, sun, snow and seismic activity. Of the remainder, he said, “Most of the road wear and tear impacts come from heavy vehicles, directly related to the weight per axle.”
For vehicles that weigh more than 26,000 pounds, he said, road damage increases logarithmically. “For every extra ton per axle, it increases to the 4th power of additional damage,” he said.
Idaho’s current system of taxing trucks, he said, “poorly reflects use.”
He also warned lawmakers that electric trucks are coming – and when they arrive, fuel taxes won’t contribute toward addressing their share of road damage, because they won’t buy diesel. “They’re being trialed – they’re not far away,” Wilson said.
Asked after the meeting about the prospect of electric trucks in Idaho, Palmer said, “We’ll be looking at it real hard, but no one knows when that will happen.”
Clay Handy, owner of a family trucking company based in Paul, Idaho, and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that overturned Idaho’s previous ton-mile tax, told the lawmakers, “The problem wasn’t the weight-distance tax. The problem was politically it had been set up to benefit groups of people, where they paid half as much as anyone else did for doing the same thing.
“I don’t mind paying; I just would like to see everyone pay and the dollars be put on the roads,” he said.
The Idaho Transportation Department estimates that with the legislative changes of the past few years, its annual shortfall for roads has dropped from $262 million for maintenance to $156.4 million; and from $543 million for both maintenance and keeping up with safety and capacity needs to $417.1 million.
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