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Vote no on higher car fees

Westbound traffic backs up on the Interstate 184 Connector in Boise during an evening rush hour in May.
Westbound traffic backs up on the Interstate 184 Connector in Boise during an evening rush hour in May.

Deep down on Tuesday’s ballot is a bid to dig deeper into Ada County residents’ wallets. The request comes from the Ada County Highway District. District officials want to charge car owners significantly more every year in a local add-on fee to state vehicle registration costs. The money raised would pay for road improvements.

Voters should say no.

Let’s agree that if current revenues cannot fund road improvements adequately, then all parties should pony up to pay more to cover our growth, not just individuals who own cars. The legislature controls truck fees and needs to be involved in a serious road fundraising discussion. Developer impact fees ought to be part of any overall increase, too.

Meanwhile, the ballot language leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to clarity. It lists the new fees, but it does not explain that they are on top of existing state fees. It also doesn’t mention that drivers already contribute to roads via property and gas taxes. And then, of course, there are the federal funds that flow to the state for roads, again paid for by taxpayers already.

If your car is one to two years old, the Ada County Highway District wants $70 annually under the request, starting Jan. 1, 2019. That’s a whopping 75 percent hike from the current $40. It also is in addition to the state fee of $69. So car owners would really pay $139 annually, rather than $109 now, though that’s not spelled out on the ballot.

Older cars – between three and seven years old – would cost $63 instead of $36 (plus $57 for the state), and vehicles older than seven years would cost $42 instead of $24 (plus $45 for state).

There isn’t even a sunset provision or mechanism for voter reauthorization after the current need passes.

Before passing this fee on to car owners, the ACHD should go to the legislature and get the authority to raise fees on large trucks. Big trucks will benefit from the improved road system with out increasing their fees.

Voters last approved a fee increase in 2008, so it’s not too surprising that there’s a new request. But who’s supporting this version is telling. Heavy contractors, engineers, real estate agents and pro-development business groups have lined up behind it. They all have a lot to gain from putting the cost of better roads on car owners.

They make a seductive pitch, too. Better roads, smarter traffic signals, safer school routes and more bicycle paths are all great selling points. Plus, with a local fee in hand, officials could go to the legislature for added support.

That last point is a stretch. More local revenue is more likely to dampen lawmakers’ drive to make others pay as well.

As a rapidly growing region, increasing transportation costs are a given. But until all parties are sharing the cost, voters should hold onto their money.

For 2018, the Ada County Highway District commissioners drafted a $118 million budget. A fee increase would generate $4-5 million, helping fund the proposed 2019 budget, which is projected to grow to $130 million. Local registration fees represent about 8 percent of the general fund in the commission’s overall budget. As a smaller player, the outsize hikes don’t seem fair or called for.

Yet in the past two years, development impact fees that totaled almost $20 million in 2016 were down a bit in 2018. If developers aren’t paying more, it’s a tough sell to ask individuals to do so.

Voters should reject this increase. After it fails, the district’s commission should launch a broader, more transparent discussion about who pays for the roads that benefit everyone. Develop a comprehensive package of funding for roads that will serve the community well for the long-term without unfairly burdening one group of road users.