The Idaho legislature recently ended its 2015 session with a transportation funding compromise that included passage of a seven cent per gallon increase in the gas tax and additional registration fees.
I'll stop here and note: even though we at Strong Towns don't see the world through the left/right, red/blue prism that so many in this country want to view everything (or would like you to view everything), it should be acknowledged that Idaho -- a red state dominated by Republicans -- becomes the fourth state this year to raise the gas tax. The others: Iowa, South Dakota and Utah. Three of those four are among the most Republican-dominated legislatures in the country and the fourth -- Iowa -- has a split legislature with Republicans dominating the House while Democrats retain a two vote majority in the Senate. Let's not pretend Republicans are incapable of governing when doing so requires additional revenue. Thinking otherwise is a destructive mindset that lets both of our major parties off the hook.
This year we've staked out a #NoNewRoads approach to the various transportation funding proposals that are out there. We recognize that additional money is needed to maintain the highway systems we have built, but we oppose new funding for roadways unless it includes systematic reforms that address the underlying cause of our current funding gap: a 1950's system of funding that is oriented towards expansion, not maintenance.
We need to modernize our transportation finance systems to not only fix it first, but to be oriented primarily around getting more use out of our current investments. Expansion of state and federal systems need to be an afterthought, something driven by market signals and tied to a project-specific funding stream.
In short, we built the interstate system. Now let's make the best use of it. #NoNewRoads
The Idaho funding increase contains a unique provision that, while not fully meeting our #NoNewRoads, takes a significant baby step in that direction. Here's that language from Section 11 of Part 57-814:
LEGISLATIVE INTENT. It is the intent of the Legislature that all additional funds collected under the provisions of this act, remitted to the Idaho Transportation Department or entities subject to the distribution provisions of Section 40-709, Idaho Code, shall be used exclusively for road and bridge maintenance and replacement projects both at the state and local level.
In other words, no new money for expansion. The additional funding must go to maintenance.
The cynical side of me realizes that this functionally is a matter of the left hand simply ignoring the right -- new money for maintenance frees up money that otherwise would have been spent on maintenance but can now go to expansion -- but I understand how public policy works. Let's recognize this for the important baby step it is.
To get transportation funding passed in a road-dominated, conservative state, proponents needed to forswear expansion and tie that new money to maintenance. We're not there yet, but that's a positive step.
And it's a step that might prove more important than it seems, especially since Idaho's transportation funding shortfalls are not going away:
Idaho has become the fourth state this year to raise its gas tax. But the extra revenue, plus higher vehicle registration fees, still provides only 36 percent of the state’s projected annual shortfall for road and bridge work.
Lots of challenges ahead but, for today, nice job Idaho.