A year ago the Statesman editorial board came out strongly in favor of raising the gas tax in Idaho from 25 cents per gallon to as much as the Idaho Legislature could stomach — which wasn’t much, as it turned out.
The board even envisioned doubling the tax to 50 cents.
Why? We need the money to fix our dilapidated roads and bridges.
One of the many elephants in the many underfunded rooms in Idaho is the Transportation Department, where there is nowhere near the revenue to maintain existing infrastructure or build smart new projects that will save money and lives.
At the rate Idaho funds its bridges, they must last 120 years — even though they were designed to last just 40 to 60. Three years from now, 908 bridges (half of the state’s total) will be more than 50 years old. The pavement on roads in the state is aging faster than it can be repaired or replaced. The longer we wait, the more it will cost.
Remind your elected officials in this election year that sheltering us from higher taxes and manufacturing marginal tax cuts we don’t need might sound like the conservative thing to do, but it is the opposite in this case. If you look at transportation costs as the necessities they are, paying your bills when it costs less is the conservative approach.
Idaho Sen. Bert Brackett, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, told me Thursday that even after upping the Idaho gas tax 7 cents in 2015 (and raising around $95 million for transportation expenses), the state is still running an approximate $160 million shortfall annually for maintenance. Not just one year — every year. And that doesn’t take into account more than $200 million in annual projects identified by a task force that could increase capacity and safety.
It sounds to us, and maybe to you, that Idaho ought to be looking at every possible scenario and opportunity to bring in more revenue to cover costs and fund future transportation projects.
Raising the gas tax shouldn’t be taken lightly. It affects us all, but especially the poor and those on fixed incomes. Many screamed bloody murder leading up to the new 32-cent tax that went into effect in July 2015. But guess what? The incredible drop in oil and therefore gas prices — I paid $1.75 recently, after paying close to $3 at some points in 2015 — melted away the impact of that extra 7 cents as if it was spring runoff.
What if we had built in a fluctuating tax rate that stabilized when gas prices were higher but allowed for higher taxes when market prices dip? What if, for instance, whenever the price is less than $2, this happens: At $1.90, 5 cents of that 10-cent drop goes to the Idaho gas tax, so we end up paying $1.95 and the state gets another nickel? If it drops to $1.80 or less, we pay $1.90 and a dime goes to the gas tax? I didn’t major in math, but you get the concept.
We have an opportunity to make hay and headway on paying for some of our transportation expenses in a fairly painless manner. This is not a new idea, but the circumstances present themselves now.
We all know our long-term transportation woes won’t be solved with gas tax revenue. Cars are getting better mileage, burning less. We are driving less. We see more electric and hybrid cars.
In the future, transportation funding is going to have to be addressed with technology — a system that taxes us based on VMT, or vehicle miles traveled.
We’re not there yet. But sub-$2 gas is, and it’s projected to stay that cheap through 2016 and maybe longer. Here’s hoping somebody in the Statehouse has the courage and math skills to figure out a way to raise transportation funding while the market price drops.
You can pay now, or your kids and grandkids can pay later.