State transportation department's main concerns include funding, personnel

(Idaho Falls) Post RegisterJanuary 29, 2014 

For every $1 the state spends today on transportation funding, $6 to $14 can be saved in future transportation costs.

That was the message Idaho Transportation Department Director Brian Ness brought to lawmakers Tuesday during a briefing before the House and Senate transportation committee.

“For every year you wait, the system continues to deteriorate,” he said. “The sooner you address it, the sooner we can start saving money in the amount that’s going to cost us to fix it down the road.”

The chronic backlog of transportation funding problems only will continue to hurt taxpayers in the long run, Ness said. During the next 10 years, the state’s roads could deteriorate another 15 to 20 percent in terms of condition ratings if funding isn’t addressed, he said.

Ness said the state needs to invest an additional $262 million every year to maintain and restore state and local transportation systems. An additional $281 million is needed for state and local safety enhancements.

That $543 million price tag originally was outlined by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s Task Force on Modernizing Transportation Funding in Idaho, which published its final report in January 2011.

Funding for salaries and benefits also will become critical in the next five years, when 50 percent of the department’s workforce is expected to retire. In 2013 alone, Ness said 79 employees retired, equating to the loss of 2,000 years of combined experience.

“For every open position, we asked three questions,” he said. “Does it directly serve customers? If not, does it support those who serve customers? And, where is the work done most efficiently: internally or externally?”

Since the department’s realignment initiative began in 2010, Ness said the department has eliminated 90 full-time positions largely through attrition and restructuring the workforce.

Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, made the case for new revenue — and increased taxes — to address the $543 million shortfall in transportation funding at the end of the 2013 session. Rep. Clark Kauffman, R-Filer, also introduced a measure that would increase Idaho’s sales tax by a penny for five years to create about $162 million to address the state’s annual transportation costs.

Ness said it was important to continue those conversations with residents this legislative session.

“(The legislators) work for the citizens of Idaho, and I think it’s up to the citizens to say, ‘Hey, this is important to us,’” Ness said. “We must keep having the discussion. Those who printed those bills last year are continuing to have those discussions. There are meetings taking place across the state about the bills Sen. Brackett put forward and Rep. Kauffman put forward last year.”

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