With the 2012 Legislature now disappearing in the rearview mirror, the big question for roads and bridges from the session remains: What does the state do about the seemingly overwhelming problem of road and bridge construction and maintenance in Idaho?
That question is by no means a new one and there was plenty of discussion during the session acknowledging the need for infrastructure funds, yet little was done to address the issue during the 2012 session.
Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, chairman of the House Transportation and Defense Committee, says money will be provided for roads and bridges in the next couple of years, but the funding process itself needs to be changed as well.
“It’s a pretty big process because we have to change the whole funding mechanism. The way the funding mechanism works now, it’s a decline because cars are more gas efficient (and thus yield less in tax revenue), and that’s the problem,” explains Palmer, who chaired the committee during the 2012 session. “So we need to completely change the funding structure and do it a different way.”
The transportation chairman is adamant about changing the current funding system, and said continuing in the same direction, as the state has done for decades, will not work. “We can’t do what we’ve done over the last 40 years, and that’s sit back and let it ride. Because that turned around and got us upside down where we’re at.”
Palmer says there are a number of options available to lawmakers and they are being examined. “There are a lot of alternatives out there, and we’re looking at all of them. There just wasn’t time this year to get anything on the table. I think next year there are going to be several things on the table to fund transportation.”
One common source of funding for the state in the past has been GARVEE funds. There is bonding capacity remaining from the original appropriation from years ago and there was talk during both the 2011 and 2012 sessions to use the remaining capacity for road and bridge work. “The only one (bill for additional infrastructure spending) that came through this year was GARVEE and it was a bad bill the way it was written,” Palmer says. “It was a no-go. It went down 11-3 in committee. Even the Democrats voted against it.”
With two major studies indicating the state’s road and bridge needs amounting to hundreds of million of dollars, Palmer believes the time has come to address them. “I think over the next two sessions we’re going to make pretty big jumps. I think even next year we’re going to make a big smack,” he says, “and then the year after that I think we can do more and it’s going to be even bigger. So I think in the next two years, pretty big steps.”
Obviously, the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) plays a major role in this process, and Reed Hollinshead, spokesman for ITD, said the state is “trending in the right direction.”
In an email to IdahoReporter.com, Hollinshead said that while the funding issues were not addressed during the 2012 session, there were many positives. “While it did not pass by unnoticed that another year went by without the Legislature addressing the state’s continuing shortfall for meeting infrastructure needs, it was gratifying to see that many lawmakers continue to acknowledge those needs in their statements both in committees and on the floor of the House and Senate.”
Hollinshead said ITD was also pleased with the concerns lawmakers had over a report issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which gave the Gem State a low grade, saying that the grade “is a reminder that significant hurdles remain.”
In addition, several lawmakers commented on the findings from the Governor’s Task Force on Transportation Funding, according to Hollinshead, showing that lawmakers—as Palmer noted—realize that the funding mechanism currently in place is not sufficient.
Nearly two years ago, the governor’s task force, headed by Lt. Gov. Brad Little, identified hundreds of millions of dollars of needs, but the lieutenant governor told IdahoReporter.com following the release of the report that the state’s funding needs for education and other priorities necessitated the state putting off any added infrastructure funding until times were better.