Lobbyist to Idaho legislators: Roads need to be fixed

A trucking association proposes a 24 percent fuel tax increase.

LEWISTON TRIBUNEFebruary 8, 2014 

The Idaho Trucking Association introduced legislation in the House Transportation and Defense Committee on Thursday that would raise the fuel tax from 25 cents per gallon to 31 cents over three years.

The measure would generate about $53 million per year by 2016, making a dent in the state’s estimated $262 million annual transportation funding shortfall.

Trucking industry lobbyist Skip Smyser, a former chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the increase would be phased in at 2 cents per year.

“I believe it’s time for us to meaningfully address the infrastructure needs of this state,” he said. “We depend on a sound road system to be the kind of state we want to be.”

About 80 percent of Idaho communities depend on highways and truck transportation exclusively for shipping and receiving commodities, Smyser said.

“They don’t have railroads, they don’t have airports. Whatever they consume or market or sell, it’s on a truck,” he said. “The economy of Idaho is totally and completely dependent on the trucking industry for its well-being.”

So, he said, when the trucking industry itself says it’s time to address the state’s eroding transportation infrastructure, the Legislature should listen.

“We’re out there every day — and we’re one of the few groups willing to put our money where our mouths are,” Smyser said. “We’re willing to tax ourselves to meet the needs of Idaho. What I’m asking you to do is the right thing.”

The committee chairman, Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, said he expects the bill to get a public hearing, but its fate remains uncertain.

Gov. Butch Otter has tried repeatedly to boost funding for transportation needs, but he indicated earlier this year he wants to see the results of a public opinion poll before moving forward.

Dan Chadwick, executive director of the Idaho Association of Counties, told his membership this week that nothing would happen this session.

“I stand by that,” he said Thursday. “The Legislature wants to look at all the options, from gas tax to vehicle registration fees to sales tax. That’s why I doubt this (trucking industry bill) has much chance.”

Smyser said after years of talking, it’s time to finally pick a funding option and move forward.

“I’ve heard about using a surplus eliminator, so that excess revenue goes to fund transportation,” he said. “I’ve heard about doing something with dyed (diesel) fuel. Why are we waiting? Electric cars, they need to contribute, grabbing the sales tax from tires and batteries, using the money from the cigarette tax after (the Statehouse renovation) is paid off. All of these are ideas we’ve discussed. It’s time to stop talking about funding options and actually do something.”

Smyser said the vital importance of Idaho’s road system was brought home to him in the 1990s, during a visit to McCall.

“Landslides closed U.S. 95,” he recalled. “It was very interesting to be there and watch people panic. Every commodity in the grocery store was gone in 24 hours. That was a firsthand view at what happens if we can’t get trucks to bring in the eggs and milk and all the things we depend on.”

Rep. Terry Gestrin, R-Donnelly, said he was a Valley County commissioner when that happened.

“It was January of 1997,” he said. “We were flying food in.”

Palmer said he was one of the pilots.

“My brother and I were both flying in,” he said. “We had family stuck up there. Everybody who had a little plane was running up there. I think it took three or four days to clear the road.”

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