During both the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions, there seemed to be general agreement that the state’s infrastructure needs—its road and bridges—had reached the point where a great deal of money was necessary to take care of acute issues and begin attacking some long-range concerns.
For example, a task force appointed by Gov. Butch Otter in 2010 and headed by the lieutenant governor, Brad Little, estimated a $543 million tab to fix all the problems, with $262 million of that just to retain the status quo on road and bridge conditions. The group considered nearly 40 proposals to raise revenue for infrastructure challenges.
But there was also general agreement that the poor state of the economy and needs in other areas when funds were limited—most specifically, education—precluded any major money dedicated to infrastructure. But both the Senate and House Transportation Committee chairmen said in 2012 that a day of reckoning was coming soon if funding is not allocated.
Otter’s State of the State message in January did not address roads and bridges, but Little says the governor “is an advocate for critical work in maintaining our infrastructure.”
In 2009 Otter proposed an increase in the fuels tax and higher registration fees to raise $175 million as a way to address the roads and bridges issue. The Legislature said no.
Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, is chairman of the House Transportation Committee. He says the state’s roads and bridges are not “dangerous, but they are getting to the point where they are going to need maintenance to keep from being dangerous."
Palmer says of the current director of the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD), Brian Ness: "The department wants to show us they are lean, that they are doing everything they can do and not waste a dime before they come to us and ask for money. Director Ness is really good about, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do, I’ll maintain the amount we already have and we’ll start dropping some roads that are less traveled. If you want to bring us more money, we’ll maintain all the roads.’"
A common funding theme among state lawmakers is the problem with relying on the gas tax for revenue. Simply put, cars are getting better gas mileage. Many hybrids are getting 40 to 50 miles per gallon and those are less tax dollars going into the fund to maintain roads and bridges.
Little says of the gas tax that "the fairness issue of it needs to be looked at." He says the user-pay model worked when the state was able to capture revenue from most of the cars traveling on Idaho highways, but fuel efficiencies have made a sizable dent in the funds flowing to IDT.
For Ness, another concern is a source of infrastructure funds that can’t be counted on. Federal funding, usually in the form of some of matching funds in which the state puts up a percentage of money and the federal government normally more than matches that amount, is problematic. Ness says, "We not sure where federal funding is going to go. We’re preparing because it is possible we could lose $100 million.”
Well, if there are $543 million in total needs as of a few years ago with $262 million in immediate needs and not enough funds, what can be done?
"We might transition more from a construction mode that you see us in right now,” explains Ness, “where we are doing some reconstruction of our highways and go more into a preventative maintenance mode. Do a lot more crack sealings, do some overlays, put bridge joints in, do some bridge paintings. Rather than do some wholesale construction jobs."
But Ness says that infrastructure cosmetics will not work forever. He compares the current situation with roads and bridges with a roof that can be repaired a few times by overlaying shingles to prevent decay, but eventually the roof will collapse.
“Every state is wrestling with the same problem,” says the lieutenant governor. “It (infrastructure) is a continuously costly asset. Many bridges we have were built during Eisenhower administration and many rural areas have even older bridges. We’re going to have to come up with some way to fund. Our economy and our jobs are at risk if our transportation system starts to fail.”