The state of Idaho has not changed its fuel tax since 1996. In that time the purchasing power of that revenue raised has gone down significantly. The million dollars worth of gravel that the department of transportation could buy in 1996 costs 1.47 million dollars today. Material costs have also contributed to a shrinking available budget. From 1999 to 2010 there was a 269% increase in the cost of oil for asphalt (Task Force, 2011, pg. 6).
All of these factors collide to put the ITD in a position where their shoestring budget requires them to prioritize projects. The first priority obviously is safety, which means other projects relating to expansion and maintenance are set aside. This creates what Mike Golden, ITD’s chief administrative officer, refers to as “the cost of waiting.” When expansion or maintenance projects are postponed there is a cost paid by the citizens for not doing them.
For instance, when an expansion project is postponed due to insufficient funds issues of “bottle-necking” occur. This means there is a congestion point where the road is not large enough to support the local needs, and increased traffic is the result. When bottle-necking occurs citizens are stuck in traffic for longer periods of time. This means their fuel costs go up, the wear and tear on vehicles also increase. Another example of the costs paid due to postponing expansion projects is when old bridges restrict trucks that are tall or wide from going under them and therefore increases travel distances. This limits commerce within the state and costs businesses.
When maintenance projects are postponed the life of the road decreases significantly. This “jump over a dollar to save a dime” approach causes roads to have to be completely redone instead of simply needing to be resurfaced. A snowball effect occurs and more of ITD’s budget is used to redo a road and there is not any money left over to do maintenance projects on other roads.
This is not a trend that is likely to change. Each year it is becoming more and more difficult to generate revenue through the fuel tax. As the gas prices continue to rise and people become more environmentally conscious, fuel-efficient vehicles are becoming more and more popular. This means that people are wearing down the roads and are paying less per mile to do it.
In order to combat the myriad of problems that face Idaho’s road system, the state will need to make changes, and sooner rather than later. The problem now comes down to political feasibility. When should we push for change? What kind of change should we push for? Simply raising the fuel tax would simply kick the can down the road. Even if taxes are tied to inflation, fuel efficiency improvements will cause revenue problems to persist.
Other states such as Oregon have discussed taxing by the mile instead of by fuel. The practicality of this method is seriously questionable, especially in a state such as Idaho. Many are concerned about “big brother” tracking their whereabouts, and would fight a mileage tax like the bubonic plague. The method of collecting this tax could also prove to be costly. Its doubtful people would accept GPS tracking, even if its constitutionality wasn’t an issue. Installing toll booths to track miles would have large start-up costs, and would slow traffic. Toll booths as simply a fee collecting venture would be doable in metropolitan area such as Boise but would not be practical in small areas with low traffic.
Registration fees are likely the best way for Idaho to go. While at the end of the day a fee and a tax are just about the same thing, to Idaho legislatures this would be very different. These politicians could go back to their constituencies and say they did not raise taxes. On top of that registration fees are not subject to changes in fuel efficiencies. That doesn’t mean it is a silver budget. Raising the fees by ten or twenty dollars could be possible. Raising them by 100 would be political suicide. There are many that argue that it would not be equitable. Should a grandma who only drives to the grocery store and back have to pay the same large registration fee as someone who drives 500 miles a week?
There is not one simple solution to fix this problem. It will likely take many changes and a few innovations. Fixing our roads isn’t something we will be able to do overnight. All that means is we need to start now. The longer we wait to climb out of this hole, the deeper it gets.
Governor’s Task force on modernizing transportation funding in Idaho Final report January 2011. Statement of Purpose RS22261
Interview. Mike Golden. Chief Administrative Officer. Idaho Department of Transportation. April 3 2013
Erickson. Alex. (2013) Idaho’s infrastructure. Unpublished manuscript. Boise State University.