Reader's View: Time to talk solutions for Idaho’s roads

November 2, 2013 

It’s time for an honest conversation about the state’s roads and bridges that includes all Idahoans.

There’s renewed discussion about raising $262 million annually to meet a shortfall identified by the Governor’s 2010 Task Force on Modernizing Transportation Funding. And that’s just the minimum necessary to protect our current roads and bridges, not the full amount the task force identified.

It’s fair to say Idahoans and their elected officials may not be on board for new funding. First, a hefty price tag runs counter to our natural aversion for higher fees and taxes. Idahoans are also understandably dubious about putting a patch on a problem that hasn’t been well defined, is difficult to grasp, or whose solutions unfairly target some road user groups at the expense of others.

Maybe it’s time to frame the issue the way we would if we were talking about our personal health. A doctor’s diagnosis can be unsettling, but we know it’s important to weigh the advice, alter unhealthy behaviors and make smart choices. In short, we take our medicine. Homeowners do the same thing by performing regular maintenance and making necessary repairs to protect their investment.

The prognosis for our roads and bridges is not good. We’ve fallen behind, underinvesting in an asset that’s turned into an expensive liability. The user fees and taxes once heralded as the fairest way to good roads and bridges are now creating winners and losers.

Idaho’s 25-cent gas tax is still the biggest contributor to the Highway Distribution Account (HDA), amounting to about half the money that goes into that protected account. But it hasn’t been raised since 1996 and its buying power has eroded as road costs have skyrocketed.

We’re also driving less — using more fuel-efficient vehicles that lower gas tax revenues. There are more of us on the road, too, but we’re actually depending on 1996 dollars to pay for 21st-century needs. Roads and bridges built for our grandparents are showing their age.

Motorists have a legitimate gripe, too. We’re paying $2.25 a gallon more for gas than in 1996. It’s an expensive necessity that reaches deep into our wallets.

Idaho’s other primary funding mechanism, a passenger vehicle registration fee, does not efficiently allocate for wear and tear either. Car owners pay the same annual registration fee based on a vehicle’s age, whether they drive 2,000 or 20,000 miles. Together, the state’s gas tax and passenger vehicle registration fees account for about 70 cents of every dollar in the HDA. Just making them more expensive won’t make them more efficient.

If you drive something bigger than a pickup, you know Idaho’s patchwork of registration fees varies for farm trucks, seasonal trucks, and those registered for county use only. Trucks registered above 60,000 pounds pay registration fees that don’t adequately apportion road fees based on actual miles. Non-Idaho based long haulers also enjoy a distinct per-mile tax advantage compared to Idaho shippers.

Idahoans deserve better, and it’s time for us to share our two cents worth of advice before being asked to simply pay more. We need to rethink the issue with the goal of finding solutions that are transparent, accountable and fair for Idahoans.

Policy makers and elected officials might just discover that getting everyone to pay for what they use can make a tough job a little easier.

Check out more of the details and add your voice to the discussion at www.betterroadsforidaho.com.

Dave Carlson is director of public and government affairs at AAA Idaho.

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