It's already too late for the Idaho Legislature to prevent the state's highways and bridges from falling into disrepair, says state Sen. Bert Brackett, a Republican from Twin Falls County.
Gov. Butch Otter's 2010 task force cited that wear and tear when it determined the state would need to spend an additional $262 million per year just to maintain the state's current transportation system, let alone take on new projects. That would be a 27.7 percent increase in the $945 million spent now to support all transportation spending at the state and local level.
Otter failed to get the money in 2009. Five proposals to increase funding were presented late in the 2013 session but went nowhere. The governor and Legislature put off the issue in 2014, an election year.
Now that it's 2015, will the Legislature come up with the money? Can the tax-averse Republican majority stomach raising money through a gas tax or other means? Or will it kick highway funding down the road for another year?
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Any transportation funding bills will pass through the Senate Transportation Committee, which Brackett chairs. He says the money must start flowing to highways before the state has a more expensive crisis to deal with.
"We've already bumped it down the road maybe 18 years now," he says. "In the meantime, roads are getting a lot of potholes. Bridges are aging."
An Idaho Transportation Department report last year said that without more money, the share of state-maintained pavement designated as "deficient," now 15 percent, will increase to 25 percent by 2019. State bridges, which are designed to have a life of 50 years, will be replaced every 120 years under current funding,
A UNIFIED APPROACH
In 2009, before he became CEO of the Idaho Association of General Contractors, Wayne Hammon crunched budget numbers as administrator of Otter's Division of Financial Management. Hammon said he wrote most of the 2009 bill to raise $174 million for Idaho highways and bridges.
The bill failed, marking one of Otter's greatest political defeats.
"We took the bill from the governor's office (in the Capitol) up to the third floor and said, 'Pass this,'" Hammon said. "That didn't work."
Otter's timing was poor, Hammon said. The Great Recession was underway, making spending increases untenable. And no one rallied the issue's many stakeholders to the cause, Hammon said.
Hammon has assembled the Idaho Transportation Coalition to marshal those stakeholders, including influential businesses such as Monsanto, Potlatch, Clearwater Paper and the Idaho Forest Group, as well as the Idaho Trucking Association and the Idaho Association of Highway Districts.
The group also includes Hammon's AGC, whose engineers and contractors would benefit from an increase in spending. They include Knife River, Central Paving, Concrete Placing Co., Idaho Sand & Gravel and Western Construction.
The coalition president, Dave Butzier, is managing partner for the state's debt-funded highway program as well as program manager for highway projects at URS Corp. Last year, coalition members accepted that transportation funding was a nonstarter during an election year. But they met with lawmakers to talk about the transportation system's needs and to ensure the issue wouldn't be forgotten once elections were over.
Brackett expects dozens of bills proposing plans for transportation funding to be proposed this session. They will be debated and consolidated into several compromise proposals, he said.
Butzier said meetings with House and Senate leadership, as well as with Brackett and Joe Palmer, the Meridian Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee, have given him confidence this is the year the Legislature will boost transportation funding.
"It's very likely," he said.
That money has to come from somewhere.
"That's why transportation is always a tough one," Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said at a December meeting of local chambers of commerce. "Everybody wants better roads, but nobody wants to pay for it."
Brackett says he's open to any funding source that is politically feasible, including raising the gas tax, which has been 25 cents per gallon since 1996. Another option is to increase license and registration fees.
Other ideas include increasing fees on electric cars and hybrids to offset the gas they aren't consuming, increasing fees on freight trucks and taking money from the general fund, which draws its money from sales and income taxes.
Few of those ideas will survive the bill whittling process, said Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry.
"You have to be realistic," LaBeau said. "It has to be fuel taxes and or registration fees. There's really no magic to this."
An Idahoan driving the most-registered vehicle in the state - a 2007 Toyota Camry - would spend an average of $60 more on gas annually if the fuel tax increased by 10 cents to 35 cents, according to the coalition.
Raising $262 million with a gas tax increase, fee increase or a combination of the two would require Idaho's 1.1 million licensed drivers to pay $238 more per year on average.
Brackett said he wouldn't support funding highway and bridge maintenance through the gas tax alone. Getting to $262 million would require a 26-cent increase to 51 cents. Idaho's tax is similar to gas taxes in neighboring states except Washington, which collects 37.5 cents. Nationwide, states tax an average of 20.6 cents per gallon, according to the American Petroleum Institute.
Brackett prefers a combination of sources.
Otter was vague about his goals for the transportation budget when he spoke to a group of reporters last week, saying he'd leave it up to the Legislature. But he tried to cast the inadequate funding as a form of irresponsible borrowing.
"We talk about kicking the can down the road," Otter said. "That's what Washington, D.C., does. ... Deferred maintenance is deficit spending. We have to maintain our infrastructure."
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, was noncommittal at the same event. "We'll get there eventually," Bedke said. "I think we'll take steps in that direction this year. What (steps), I can't predict at this point."
Butzier said he's counting on Bedke's support.
"He's been a supporter," Butzier said. "We're confident the speaker will be there when it's time to make the call. He'll be a key guy for us."
Zach Kyle: 377-6464, @IDS_zachkyle