Guest editorial: Why spend more on Idaho’s “excellent” highways?

From the Lewiston Tribune

Almost a year ago, Idaho Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter had an opportunity to make good on his four-year-old pledge to shore up highway and bridge funding.

In 2009, Otter had taken a shellacking when Republican lawmakers wouldn’t budge on fuel tax and registration fee increases.

Since then - according to his own task force - Idaho has been falling $262 million behind on maintenance each year. But Otter was gun-shy.

So in late 2013, lawmakers floated a package of bills designed to spark the conversation for the 2014 legislative session.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, was willing to talk about anything: fuel taxes, registration fees, imposing charges on electric and hybrid cars and even dipping into the general fund by steering sales tax receipts from automotive purchases toward transportation.

Next came a broad coalition willing to push for new funding. Among its members were the usual suspects - the Idaho Associated General Contractors and the Idaho Association of Highway Districts - as well as groups representing consumers, automobile dealers, the trucking industry, retailers and local governments.

Otter’s former budget chief and newly installed AGC Executive Director Wayne Hammon talked about a “sense of urgency” to do something.

The economy was picking up and even the public - while hardly enthusiastic about a tax increase - seemed persuadable. AAA Idaho’s survey found people split - 47 percent for, 47 percent against. Elsewhere, 75 percent told AAA they’d pay at least $5 more a month to support highways.

Then Otter showed up at the Associated Contractors’ winter meeting and made it plain: “Gettin’ me re-elected” was the top priority and highway funding would just have to wait until the campaign season was over.

So the eighth legislative session of Otter’s tenure came and went without a transportation bill - because Otter was betting he’d be back in 2015.

All of which is acquiring the sense of another opportunity squandered.

With the Middle East unraveling, gas prices are heading up.

Otter won his primary over Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, but seems to have lost his party in the process.

And the nation’s highway trust fund is about to go broke - which could lead to a 12-cent rise in the federal fuel tax before Idaho lawmakers reconvene next winter.

Now this: If shortchanging the state’s roads and bridges by more than $1 billion these last four years has had an effect, most Idahoans haven’t noticed.

As the Tribune’s William L. Spence reported, the survey Otter asked the University of Idaho’s McClure Center for Public Policy Research to conduct produced these preliminary findings:

* Two-thirds believe Idaho’s infrastructure adequately meets the state’s needs - although only 27 percent expected the status quo to remain acceptable in 10 years.

* 65 percent rate Idaho’s major highways as good to excellent.

* Fewer than a third gave county highways such high marks.

That’s just a sample the UI shared with the Association of Idaho Cities. Complete results will be released around July 8. What it suggests is that nobody has made the case to the average Idahoan that the highways and bridges he depends upon are crumbling. No one has pointed out deteriorating highways, the dilapidated bridges, the swelling congestion and the widening potholes.

Until then, no transportation bill is going to succeed.

So who is willing to do this work?

Probably not the governor whose priority is “gettin’ me re-elected.”