Idaho Transportation

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Boise, ID 83707
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Support improving Idaho roads

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter distributed the following opinion at the request of its author, Gov. Phil Batt, to provide an important historical perspective and to help Idahoans better understand the issues involved in Idaho’s transportation funding challenge.

By Former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt
It’s frustrating when it takes 40 minutes to drive to work from 8 miles away.  We need more arterials and more freeway lanes.

And it’s hard on the car when the roads are filled with pits and potholes.  We’re overdue for a new roadbed in a lot of places throughout the state.

And it sure would be nice if we had a super highway to North Idaho and a road up to Midvale that bypassed that winding canyon along the Payette River.

But don’t hold your breath while waiting for these improvements to take place.  The reality is that it will require a massive change in funding our highway program to make any substantial progress on Idaho’s roads.

I know it’s a poor time to talk about increasing the cost of operating a motor vehicle.  But we have always had more needs than money regarding our transportation system within our beloved state.  The picture has never been more bleak than today.  But financial sacrifices for transportation have been required since territorial days and each generation has responded with increased funding.  It doesn’t make sense that we now say “we won’t face the music – make our kids and grandkids pay.”

A brief look at history makes clear that the problem has always been with us.  The intractable topography of territorial days presented a nightmarish mobility problem.  The saving grace was that there were no motorized vehicles then.

The original Idaho Territory comprised most of the northwestern U.S.  Then Oregon and Washington split off – followed by Montana – finally Wyoming.  Idaho, then and now, was left with a wonderfully diverse piece of geography, but with a colossal headache in getting from one place to another.

The Territorial government soon declared county boundaries, they, in turn, established road districts.  Primitive roads were built, almost exclusively with private funds, and tolls were charged.  Sometimes the fees were exorbitant, to say the least.  To take a single burro over some passes, it cost $1. That would be about $50 today.

Some of the delegates to the Idaho Territorial government lived in what is now Montana.  History does not record how they managed to cross the mountains to get to the Lewiston Capitol.  Maybe they went clear around the southern part of the state.

Economic opportunities dictated where the earliest roads were established.  The Gold Rush of 1861-1865 brought hundreds of prospectors into Orofino and the Boise Basin.

They blazed all kinds of trails, and paid through the nose for their supplies.  An Idaho City feed yard charged $13.60 for feeding 2 mules 34 pounds of hay.

There was quite an extensive toll road system by that time and the toll operators effectively squelched any attempts at building public roads.  Toll franchises were eagerly sought after and were mostly granted to friends of those in power.  In the early days of statehood, counties and highway districts subsidized state efforts with loans of money which they derived from property taxes.  There was also a $3 local road tax on able bodied men.  A full day’s work (mostly with pick and shovel) could be given in lieu of the head tax.   The state was severely limited in its ability to raise transportation taxes.

Idaho did levy a tiny property tax but it took many years to repay its debts to the counties and highway districts.  The state finally repealed its own property tax levy for roads in about 1925 and went to other sources.

Throughout our state’s history, requests for roads have exceeded available funds by 4 to 20 times.  That’s still the case.  But the difference today is that we don’t seem to have the will to do anything about it.

Registration fees were instituted in 1913 ranging from $15 to $40.  They were reduced to a flat $5 during the great depression.  They are now at $54 which is far below the average of other states.  This evidently isn’t much of a burden as specialty license plates abound, where people voluntarily throw in another $35 to $70 to get the tag they want.

The first state fuels taxes were levied in 1923.  The gas tax was 2 cents per gallon, 1925 – 3 cents, 1929 – 5 cents.

It was 14.5 cents in 1986 and was raised periodically until it reached 25 cents under my administration in 1996.  The purchasing power of our gas tax has declined with inflation and the cost of construction.  It would take more than twice the tax rate to buy the same amount of construction and maintenance we could in 1996.  We haven’t raised gas taxes since then.

Here’s my farmer’s estimate* of the effect of state gas tax on the cost of gasoline:

Year *Cost of gas Tax % of cost of gas
1923 10 cents 2 cents 20%
1929 20 cents 5 cents 25%
1986 $ 1.00 14.5 cents 15%
1996 $ 1.50 25 cents  17%
2008 $ 4.00  25 cents 7%

What is the cost of operating a car?  An example would be a $20,000 auto that gets 20 mpg and travels 20,000 miles per year.

$ 500.00
$ 200.00
Oil Changes (4) 
$ 100.00
$ 2,000.00
Interest (1/2 cost X 6)
$ 600.00
Gasoline (1000 X $4)
$ 4,000.00
Maintenance, Repairs & registration
$ 8,000.00

This is 40 cents per mile.  Most governments use about that figure for reimbursement.  It is interesting to note that state and federal gas tax on 1000 gallons of gas costs about $400 per year or 2 cents per mile.

The federal government has always been a big player in building and maintaining our roads.  Because it owns most of our state, it has regularly paid a big share of our bills.  The feds paid for 90 % of our interstate system.  In Idaho it was 92%, because of our federal holdings and because our engineers were on the ball and ready to build the roads.  We have historically collected more from the federal highway fund than we paid in.  We are a donee state.  The donor states have been howling, and Congress has increasingly accommodated them.  Idaho’s favorable treatment has diminished and is rapidly coming to an end.  This is only one of several reasons why GARVEE Funding (borrowing from your future federal funds to build now) is a bad idea.  Here are some reasons:

  1. GARVEE is a typical modern day idea of funding by smoke and mirrors, similar to our credit card excesses and sub prime mortgages.  In each case it is spend now and leave any pain involved in the payback until later.  It allows legislators and governors to say they have done something to fund our roads when all they have done is borrow money.
  2. Federal highway funding levels are likely to reduce in the future making GARVEE-based repayments even more painful.  There are periodic proposals for federal gas tax holidays or outright repeal.  Congress will likely never have the courage to increase that levy.  In the meantime, our federal highway fund surplus has disappeared and we will probably see the necessity to add to our burgeoning national debt in order to finance it.  I believe our Congress must become fiscally responsible in every way.  It’s probable that federal highway aid will actually decrease.  If it comes down to transportation funding or medical care, medical care will win.
  3. The Idaho legislators assumed the authority to say when and where GARVEE roads would be built. This is a dangerous historical departure from our tried and true practice of leaving these decisions to a neutral highway board.  It’s not in the cards for a legislator from Malad or Sandpoint to get behind a plan to exclusively build Treasure Valley roads.  I served on the Highway Board.  The board makes its decisions as much as possible on data and recommendations furnished by a staff of professional engineers.  Politicians need to keep hands off that process.

So what should we do?  Our roads are falling apart.  Gridlock is here in some places.   Needs are burgeoning and costs are rising.  Yet we haven’t increased available revenue substantially for over a decade.  Here are some of the options:

  1. Raise gas tax to match inflation since last increase.
  2. Apply sales tax to gas.
  3. registration fees to be comparable to other states.
  4. Develop private partnerships for toll roads (a beltway around Treasure Valley would be an example).
  5. Pay for state police from the general fund.  This would increase money available to the highway fund by $16 million dollars.
  6. Fund some highway costs from general fund taxes (some states do this).
  7. Get more GARVEE funds.
  8. Impose higher impact fees for construction.

I’m not choosing or recommending among these. Any of them but further borrowing would make sense to me. I do say the problem is acute and will get worse fast if we don’t face up to it and raise some more highway funds. Gov. Otter is doing a good job of pointing out the urgent need for additional funds.  Idaho citizens and Idaho legislators need to listen and respond with action.

Published 8-8-8