Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Why are we still talking about this?

Transportation funding.

In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a recurring theme in my blogs, not to mention a significant portion of all COMPASS communications…emails, website, conversations, social media… You get the picture.

The question you may be asking yourself is “why?” The Idaho Legislature raised gas tax and registration fees to address the transportation funding shortfall, and Congress just passed a five-year transportation authorization and funding bill (the “FAST Act”) on December 4.

We have new transportation funding, so why don’t I just shut up already?

The answer is simple: it’s too important an issue to simply sit back and say “we’re done.”

The new funding generated by the 2015 increase in Idaho gas tax and registration fees amounts to about $9 million per year for local transportation agencies in Ada and Canyon Counties. While $9 million is a lot of money, and a much-needed boost, it still leaves the two-county area with a $150 million per year transportation funding shortfall.

While the five-year federal FAST Act provides some stability to transportation funding, it does not solve our transportation funding woes either. The bill keeps the federal fuel tax at 1993 levels and makes up for funding shortfalls with one-time injections of general funds. It does not include long-term solutions to increase transportation funding, keep up with inflation, or compensate for decreasing revenues from increasingly fuel efficient vehicles.

So, with the 2016 Idaho Legislative session set to start in a few weeks, I am continuing to beat the “we need more funding” drum.

I’ve been told not to expect any sort of funding increase from the Legislature this year. Last year’s increase was a long, hard battle that no one relishes repeating anytime soon. That said, there are things that can be done:
  • Continue to look at ways to diversify transportation funding mechanisms, beyond the traditional fuel taxes and registration fees.
    • As part of this discussion, we need to consider how diversified revenue streams could fund public transportation and other alternative transportation modes that fuel taxes cannot fund.
  • Increase funding and flexibility for local transportation agencies.
    • The “surplus eliminator” (additional funding contingent on a general fund budget surplus) provides support for state projects; let’s expand its benefits to local agencies.

 Let’s continue to have this conversation. It’s too important to put on the back burner.

Don’t Let the Treasure Valley Fall through the Cracks.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A bright spot in a dark winter day

Today is the first day of winter. Technically, it’s the darkest day of the year.

However, at COMPASS, it’s just the opposite. Yesterday, alongside COMPASS Board Chair Mayor Garret Nancolas, I had the privilege of honoring our 2015 Leadership in Motion award recipients. Presenting our annual awards is one the brightest spots in the year for me.

Two common threads linked all of this year’s award winners: persistence and longevity. These were exhibited through projects that took perseverance and years of hard work, to people who have stood the test of time and have the accomplishments to show for it, to a local nonprofit receiving its second Leadership in Motion award for its ongoing service to the community.

These all serve as a reminder that great things take time, hard work, and patience. As they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Neither was the Treasure Valley. 

Let these recipients serve as an inspiration and a beacon of light for you. Learn more about each recipient at http://www.compassidaho.org/comm/awards.htm.

Congratulations to our 2015 Leadership in Motion recipients:

Leadership in Government, Canyon County
·         City of Nampa
o   Library Square

Leadership in Government, Ada County
·         Boise State University
o   Elder Street Park and Ride

Leadership by Example, Nonprofit
·         Boise Bicycle Project

Leadership by Example, Elected Official
·         Mayor John Evans, City of Garden City

Leadership in Practice, Professional
·         Dyan Bevins, P.E., Ada County Highway District

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

It takes two…

Last winter and spring, you probably heard a lot about work in the Idaho Legislature to increase transportation funding. In April, after a lot of wrangling, the Idaho Legislature passed a bill to increase the gas tax and raise registration fees to help address Idaho’s significant transportation funding shortfall.

Now, you may be hearing about transportation issues at the federal level – funding, transportation authorization bills (or the lack thereof), and more.

It seems confusing. Why are both the state and federal governments involved in funding transportation? Can’t just one or the other handle it?

Just as with many parts of our system of government, states and the federal government share the burden and jointly reap the benefits of funding our transportation system. The system recognizes that as “united” states, our transportation and infrastructure needs do not stop at state lines – our national and local economies depend on everything from freight to tourists easily moving around the country. We also recognize that the need and ability to pay for infrastructure varies greatly from place to place. For example, in rural Idaho, we have stretches of highway running hundreds of miles with very small local populations. On the other hand, along the densely populated eastern seaboard, the ratio of population to road miles falls on the other end of the spectrum.  

Everyone pays the same federal fuel taxes, whether you live in Florida or Idaho. The taxes collected by the federal government are then re-distributed back to the states. In Idaho, we benefit greatly from this model. For every $1 our residents pay in federal fuel tax, Idaho gets $1.65 back. In fact, 54% of the funding for Idaho’s transportation system is federal. On one hand, this is a tremendous benefit to the state; on the other hand, it underscores how reliant we are on federal funding as compared to our own state funding. The national average for federal funding is only 24%.

When it comes to state taxes, each state can choose how much to tax and how to levy that tax, depending on its needs, population base, and desires of its citizens. In Idaho, our state transportation funding comes mainly from fuel tax and registration fees. Meanwhile, Oregon is experimenting with a voluntary vehicle miles of travel tax (see blog below). As a state, they are able to try a new way to tax to see if it works for them.  

Both federal and state funding have their benefits and drawbacks. It would be tough for Idaho to fund its transportation system alone, and equally difficult to fund it with nothing but federal funds.  

So, where does that leave us with regards to the ongoing discussions regarding transportation funding and policy?

As a state, we can’t wait for Congress to act to solve all our transportation needs. Our legislature needs to take responsibility, as it did last spring. On the other hand, we also cannot let Congress ask states to shoulder the burden alone. Just because Idaho, and other states, recently raised fuel taxes or made similar changes, Congress can’t simply say “problem solved” and move on.

We must be vigilant on both fronts and be part of the conversation to ensure transportation funding needs are met today and in the future.   

Friday, October 30, 2015

A VMT tax in Idaho? Lessons from our neighbor to the west

Did you know that in 1919, Oregon was the first state to institute a fuel tax? Now, in 2015, they are the first state to institute a vehicle miles of travel (VMT) tax – or, as they call it in Oregon, a road usage charge.

Within 10 years of instituting a fuel tax, every state in the nation had followed Oregon’s example. Will the nation again follow Oregon’s lead and establish a VMT tax? Will Idaho?

I honestly don’t know, but I do know that we need to revisit the way we fund our transportation system and a VMT tax is one way of doing that. The concept of a VMT tax is simple: drivers would be charged a fee based on the number of miles they drive, instead of (NOT in addition to) the amount of fuel they purchase. With this type of tax, everyone pays the same amount per mile, tying the amount paid in “transportation tax” directly to the amount of use.

Maureen Bock, Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), and Colleen Gants, PRR (a consultant working with ODOT), shared insight into Oregon’s new road usage charge – OReGO – as part of the COMPASS education series in September. I’d like to share a little of what they discussed – focusing on the “why” and “how” of the program.

Why? Oregon instituted its OReGO program to address declining gas tax revenues, a disparity between revenues and expenses, and social equity issues.

Declining gas tax revenues:
  • Changes to the nation’s vehicle fleet
    • The number of hybrids and electric vehicles on the road is increasing rapidly
    • Less fuel (or no fuel at all!) is consumed by hybrid and electric vehicles than traditional gas/diesel-powered vehicles
  • Stricter fuel efficiency standards
    • Traditional gas/diesel vehicles are getting more and more fuel efficient
    • As standards become even more strict, this trend will continue
    • The bottom line: less fuel used means less fuel tax collected
    Disparity between revenues and expenses:
    • Fuel taxes are typically priced per gallon
      • A price per gallon method of taxation doesn’t increase with inflation
      • For example, the federal gas tax has been 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. That 18.4 cents could buy much more in 1993 than it can today
    • Construction costs are increasing
    • The bottom line: stagnant or shrinking fuel tax revenue can’t keep up with costs
     Social equity:
    • Middle- and upper income individuals benefit from increased fuel efficiency as they purchase new vehicles, while lower-income individuals tend to drive older, less fuel efficient vehicles
    • The bottom line: lower income individuals pay more in fuel tax for the same usage than middle- and upper-income individuals
     How? How does the OReGO system work? Why was it set up as it was? 
    • The OReGO program is voluntary and limited to 5,000 participants. Currently, about 1,000 are enrolled.
    • To allow for flexibility and to address privacy concerns, participants have a choice in service providers – much as someone chooses their cell phone or cable provider. Different providers offer different types of service. For example, a participant can choose a provider that tracks miles only (no GPS to track where they drive) or they can choose a provider that collects more data and provides feedback to the driver. Regardless of the provider, all that ODOT ever sees is the total number of miles driven. The “extra” information is only shared with the participant
    • Costs to the participant vary depending on the type of vehicle they drive. OReGO charges a flat rate of 1.5 cents per mile. Someone driving a gas guzzler will likely save money with OReGO, as they use more fuel per mile, and thus pay more in fuel tax, than the flat rate per mile charge. On the other hand, an owner of a hybrid likely will pay more with OReGO, as they use less fuel – and therefore pay less in fuel tax – than the flat rate per mile charge.
    • As I said above, OReGO replaces fuel tax for participants…they are not double taxed. However, the way the program is currently set up, participants do pay fuel tax at the pump, then later the amount they paid in fuel tax is compared against the road usage charge and they are either invoiced or reimbursed the difference.
    One big drawback of a VMT tax is the cost to administer the program. VMT taxes are collected from individual vehicle owners, while fuel taxes are collected from gas stations. More “users” (individuals vs gas stations) means more work to collect the taxes, which makes it more expensive. It’s unknown how many vehicles would need to be enrolled in a VMT program for it to make money, but the number is likely in the millions. For now, with 1,000 enrollees in Oregon’s voluntary program, it is far from breaking even.

    Will a VMT tax solve our transportation funding woes? It’s hard to know, but the fact that Oregon – and others – are exploring how it works is a step in the right direction. Something needs to change. Our current method of paying for our transportation system is not keeping up with transportation costs or societal trends.

    What do you think? Is a VMT tax worth exploring, or is Oregon wasting its time? Do you think Idahoans would jump on board if given the chance? Submit a comment below to share your views.

    Want to learn more? Link to a video and slides of ODOT’s OReGO presentations at www.compassidaho.org/comm/publicevents_2015_ed_series.htm

    Friday, October 23, 2015

    Expanded public transportation…unfunded, but not forgotten

    Public transportation is sorely underfunded in Idaho. It does not receive any dedicated state funding; it must rely solely on federal funding, contributions from local governments, and fares and advertising revenues.

    However, that does not mean it is forgotten. COMPASS has been working diligently to plan for a future public transportation system – what is needed, when, and steps we need to take to get there.

    The next long-range transportation plan, Communities in Motion 2040 2.0 will integrate four transportation components into one complete transportation system: bicycle and pedestrian networks, freight, roadways, and public transportation. While work on some of the other components has received more fanfare (see my blog below about bicycle and pedestrian planning), COMPASS has been laying the groundwork for the public transportation component of Communities in Motion 2040 2.0.

    COMPASS contracted with Kittelson and Associates to develop a technical analysis for establishing the future needs for the public transportation system in Ada and Canyon Counties. The analysis recommends criteria for developing public transportation routes, taking into account the patterns of regional population and economic growth, development activity, transportation infrastructure, relevant urban design principles, and the need to make effective use of available funding.

    COMPASS, with its Public Transportation Workgroup, produced a systematic step-by-step process for developing the public transportation system for 2040, including identifying key milestones necessary to develop any future high capacity public transportation corridors (e.g., bus rapid transit or light rail). This process identifies steps such as prioritization of key corridors, preservation strategies, funding requirements, and targeted investments. Phasing strategies, corridor prioritization, and mode choices (e.g., bus vs rail) will be developed as the public transportation component of Communities in Motion 2040 2.0 is fleshed out in 2017. If a high capacity corridor is identified as a near-term priority in Communities in Motion 2040 2.0, COMPASS will use the strategic process to guide necessary planning.

    In tandem with developing this process, COMPASS and the Public Transportation Workgroup have been evaluating how to make the best use of funds allocated to study options for a future high capacity corridor, such as for bus rapid transit or rail. Funding had been budgeted in FY2018 for this study, but based on the findings of the technical analysis and resulting process I described above, it was determined that FY2018 is premature. These funds will be set aside to use when the timing is right, as determined through Communities in Motion 2040 2.0.

    So, the next time you hear someone say “No one cares about public transportation in the Treasure Valley,” or “Hey, hasn’t anyone ever thought of light rail?” you can assure them that COMPASS – all of our member agencies – care and that, yes, “someone” has thought of light rail. Enhancements to our public transportation system – from an expanded bus system to projects as large as bus rapid transit or light rail – don’t happen overnight and they don’t happen without a way to pay for them. They take dedicated funding and a lot of careful, deliberate planning.

    I’m confident that someday we will have funding for a more robust public transportation system. When that day comes, we will be ready.

    Friday, August 21, 2015

    A giant leap for bicycle and pedestrian planning

    The kids are heading back to school. For many of us, that signals the end of summer, but – despite homework and busy back-to-school schedules – it’s really not. In fact, this time of the year often provides the nicest weather to get out and be active. As I write this, we’re socked in with smoke from wildfires, but that will soon pass and we’ll be able to enjoy the warm, sunny days that are late summer and fall in the Treasure Valley. If you get outside, you know that on those sunny days, every mile – every foot – of the greenbelt and other pathways seems to be in constant use.

    While it is great to see so many people using our pathways, we don’t know a lot about how they are being used. How many people are biking and walking? What routes do they use? Where are they going? Are they biking to work? Running for exercise? Walking the dog? Are people using the pathways every day, rain or shine, or just on sunny weekends?

    COMPASS has recently purchased a set of 12 permanent bicycle/pedestrian counters to help us answer some of these questions. The counters will be able to tell us how many people are using Treasure Valley pathways, as well as how and when they are using them.

    The permanent bicycle/pedestrian counters, the first of their kind in Idaho, are being installed over the next few weeks. The locations for the counters were chosen with the help of a 40-member Active Transportation Workgroup. The counters will be spread throughout the valley on or near dedicated biking and/or walking paths to gather information from diverse areas, including both large and small communities. Check out the map to see if there will be a counter along your favorite bike or walking route (click to enlarge).

    While the permanent counters will focus on dedicated biking and walking paths, we have not forgotten about bike lanes, roads, and intersections. To capture data from those, COMPASS has purchased portable bicycle/pedestrian counters. These portable counters can be used to capture a lot of information about a small area, then be moved to do the same in a different area. When several portable counters are used together, we will be able to measure all the bicycle and pedestrian movements at an entire intersection at one time, which will provide valuable information.

    The data collected will be used to help inform bicycle and pedestrian planning in the Treasure Valley. COMPASS will use the data as we develop a Regional Bicycle/Pedestrian Plan for Ada and Canyon Counties and our member agencies can use the data for their local plans. The portable counters will allow COMPASS to assist members by collecting data from specific locations to assist with specific local planning efforts.

    These data will fill a gap in what we know about bicycle and pedestrian use. We currently have a method to examine the “supply” side of bicycle and pedestrian facilities – we can map exiting facilities, such as bike lanes and sidewalks, and measure the characteristics that make them more or less appealing for biking and walking.

    This new data will help us examine the “demand” side of the equation. Are people using the existing sidewalks, bike lanes, and bike paths? Are they using other routes that we haven’t anticipated?

    We will soon be able to look at the two types of data together to see where we have gaps and where we should plan for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in the future. The permanent counters will also help us to track trends over time, to see if and how the numbers of users change by time of day, day of week, and month of year.

    This is an exciting step forward for COMPASS and for the region. We have a lot of anecdotal information on bicycle and pedestrian use that we will soon be able to confirm – or deny – with this new data. While each bicyclist or pedestrian we count may just be taking one small step, these new counters are a giant leap forward in bicycle and pedestrian planning for our region.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2015

    Who’s making the Treasure Valley’s future brighter? Honor them with a nomination for a COMPASS Leadership in Motion award!

    Where do you see yourself in 2040? Do you think you’ll still be living in the Treasure Valley? I do.

    As I look forward, I have confidence that the Treasure Valley will continue to be a vibrant, wonderful place to live.

    How do I know that? I am privileged to know and work with many of our local leaders – from elected officials to professionals to volunteers – on a daily basis. I witness the dedication and hard work each puts forth as they do their part to make our future brighter. I am also fortunate enough to see the results of their labors. I get to watch as forward-thinking people move projects from ideas to completion.

    Each December I have the opportunity to shine a spotlight on these amazing leaders and projects as the COMPASS Board chair and I present the Leadership in Motion awards.

    But, before we can do that, we need your help.

    Think about who, or what project or business, is making the Treasure Valley a better place by implementing Communities in Motion, the regional long-range transportation plan for Ada and Canyon Counties, then nominate them for a Leadership in Motion award. The process is simple and quick.

    Are you skeptical of how a transportation plan could lead to a brighter future? There is a lot more to Communities in Motion 2040 than you might think. Transportation impacts all aspects of our lives, from our health to our housing costs – issues that directly affect quality of life. Communities in Motion examines these connections and sets goals that address many of the issues that impact, and are impacted by, transportation.

    I encourage you to look at who won last year and to review the Communities in Motion 2040 goals as you consider who, or what, to nominate. Many types of projects and people are implementing Communities in Motion through their good works even outside of the transportation profession. Anyone may submit a nomination and anything or anyone (other than COMPASS staff) is eligible to be nominated.

    Nominations for COMPASS Leadership in Motion awards can be submitted here and will be accepted through 3:00 pm, Wednesday, September 30, 2015. Need some help? Click to watch a short video on how to submit a nomination.

    Awards will be presented at the COMPASS/Valley Regional Transit holiday luncheon on Monday, December 21, 2015.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2015

    Treasure Valley: On the Go! photo contest

    I am constantly “on the go,” and I bet you are too. Whether you’re taking a vanpool to work, walking your kids to school, zipping around town on a Boise GreenBike, or driving an 18-wheeler, you are using the Treasure Valley’s transportation system.

    In the next update to Communities in Motion (Communities in Motion 2040 2.0) we’ll be focusing on how the individual components of our transportation system – roadways, walking and biking, freight, and public transportation -- work together to support the Treasure Valley, and we need your help.

    COMPASS wants your photos that show the many ways Treasure Valley residents are “on the go.” We’ll then use your pictures in a 2017 Treasure Valley: On the Go! calendar to help spread the word on how all parts of our transportation system fit together.

    So, what do we want you to do? 
    • Take photos of any or all of the four transportation components that will be the focus of Communities in Motion 2040:
      • Roadways
      • Walking and biking
      • Public transportation
      • Freight (rail, trucks, and/or farm freight) 
    • Send them to us any time before July 31, 2016. Use your camera to capture how you are “on the go” during all seasons, from your snowy bike ride in January to your leisurely drive in the convertible in June. 
    • Vote on your favorite photos in September 2016. 
    • Be famous! COMPASS will include the winning photos in its 2017 Treasure Valley: On the Go! photo calendar. 
    Be part of the conversation. The Treasure Vallet: On the Go! photo contest and calendar will kick off our discussion with you - Treasure Valley residents - on how you want to see these individual transportation components.

    Be creative! Be artistic! Be serious! Be silly! But most of all, be involved!

    Friday, July 24, 2015

    How do you read the TIP?

    In my last blog post (July 21, see below) regarding public comment (open through August 18) on the Regional Transportation Improvement Program, or TIP, I discussed some overarching questions of the “what” and “why” of the TIP.

    In this post, I’m getting deep into the details of how to read – and understand – a TIP project entry.

    While every project is different, each project has an entry similar to the one below. I’ve described what each of the elements of the entry are and what they mean to you.

    A. Project Title. This provides a high level description of the project and generally includes the project type and where the project is.

    B. Key #. This is a unique identification number. It is useful if you want to follow the progress of a project over the years and can be used to search for a project within a TIP document.

    C. Requesting Agency: This tells you what agency will receive the funding, do the work, and (usually) is providing the local match, when applicable. In short, it is who “owns” the project.

    D. Project Year: This is the last year for which the project is funded. Generally, this is the year the project will be completed.

    E. Total Previous Expenditures: The dollar amount shown here represents money approved to be spent prior to the current TIP (in this case, FY2016). Many projects take several years to complete and may have been started before the first year shown in the current TIP. For example, if a project began in 2015, the money approved for expenditure in FY2015 would not be included in the table, as the table begins with FY2016, so it is shown here. If this is blank, it means that no money was approved for expenditure before the first year shown in the table.

    F. Total Programmed Cost: This is the total of the costs budgeted in this TIP, as shown in the table. It does not include any previous expenditures.

    G. Total Cost: This is the full cost – money already approved plus money budgeted but not yet spent across all years. It is the sum of the “total previous expenditures” and “total programmed cost.” For consistency, all dollar amounts shown in the TIP are in “current” dollars – not adjusted for inflation.

    H. Project Description: This describes the project in more detail than the project title and project type, above. Note that maintenance projects typically have a broad description, as they encompass many individual projects. The requesting agency will have more details on these, particularly as the project year approaches. Links to those agencies are provided in the TIP.

    I. Funding Source: This refers to the type of funding used for that project (e.g., “Bridge” or “STP”). A description of the funding sources and their abbreviations can be found here. Note that an individual project can have multiple funding sources and that each funding source has its own table, showing how the funds will be spent, and in which year(s).

    J. Local Match: This shows how much of the total project will be paid for with local funds -- usually by the “requesting agency,” though in some cases other agencies may contribute as well. As can be seen in the table, the majority of the funding for these projects is federal.

    K. Table Column Headings: Each of these (preliminary engineering, right-of-way, etc.) describe the type of activity the funds will be spent on. The “total” column shows a sum of all types of expenditures for each year. The “federal share” and “local share” headings show how federal and local funds are divided each year. Added together, these also sum to the amount in the “total” column for each year.

    L. PD: This row (short for “preliminary development”) shows projects where some initial work is budgeted (e.g., purchasing land for right-of-way), but there is not funding budgeted for project construction. Projects listed in PD must show the total cost (all years), regardless of how far into the future the project may be completed. These costs are included in the “total programmed costs” discussed above.

    M. Fund Totals: These show the total amounts budgeted for each type of activity across all years shown in the TIP. The “total” is a sum of all types of expenditures (preliminary engineering through construction) and is also a sum of the federal and local shares.

    Confused? I get it.

    The “shorthand” helps make the document more succinct, which makes it easier to use and navigate, yet at the same time the abbreviations and technical terms require some assistance to understand. It’s a catch-22.

    I hope this helps. Don’t hesitate to contact COMPASS at 208/855-2558 or info@compassidaho.org with questions, and remember to comment on the draft TIP by August 18 to share your thoughts on proposed projects.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2015

    What the heck is the TIP, anyway?

    It’s that time again. Public comment is open now, through August 18, on projects in the draft FY2016 - 2020 Regional Transportation Improvement Program, or TIP. As always, the TIP project list is large and complicated, and the overall “what” and “why” of the TIP is often lost amidst the details.

    Below, I tackle some of the common questions I hear about the TIP, to help you as you consider your comments. 

    • What is the TIP?
    • Why does it matter?
    • Why are you asking for public comment?
    • What should I comment on?
    • Why is it so hard to understand?
    • Are there tricks (or “TIPS”) to finding projects I’m interested in? 
    1. What is the TIP? The TIP is a five-year budget of federally funded and “regionally significant” transportation projects in Ada and Canyon Counties. Essentially, it is a list of transportation projects that fall into these categories, with information on the project budgets. (What constitutes a “regionally significant” project is another discussion; for now, just assume it is exactly what it sounds like…a project that is big enough that it is significant to the region.) The TIP is based on the federal fiscal year, which runs from October 1 - September 30. Federal fiscal year 2016 begins on October 1, 2015.

    While it is a five-year budget, we update it yearly to add one year to the end. For example, the current TIP covers fiscal years 2015 - 2019; the draft TIP (open for public comment) covers fiscal years 2016 - 2020. The entire TIP does not change each year. New projects are added (usually to the last year) and old projects are completed and removed, but most projects simply move from one year to the next as they work their way to completion.

    Think of it like a detailed, five-year budget for your child’s college education, with you, your child, and multiple sources of financial aid all contributing. You need to track how much each aspect of college will cost (tuition, housing, fees, books, etc.), what each type of financial aid can and cannot be used for, and who is paying for how much of each item each year. It gets complicated quickly.

    2. Why does it matter? Transportation projects are expensive, time consuming, and often take years to plan and execute. Just as you would not plan for how you plan to pay for your child’s freshman year of college without looking beyond that to other years, transportation agencies need to plan ahead to budget and schedule their funding to ensure all their “ducks are in a row” when it comes time to actually build a project. And…it’s required. Federal funds cannot be spent on transportation projects without them being budgeted in an approved TIP (or the statewide equivalent).

    3. Why are you asking for public comment? 
    • These projects are being paid for using your tax dollars.
    • The projects have the potential to affect you, your commute, and your quality of life. 
    You have a right and a responsibility to review how your tax dollars are proposed to be spent and to ask questions and share your agreement, or disagreement, with the projects selected. COMPASS staff considers all public comments, passes them along to the relevant agencies, and provides them to the COMPASS Board for consideration before any final decisions are made.

    4. What should I comment on? While you can comment on any aspect of the TIP, it is the proposed projects themselves – or changes to projects already in the TIP – that have the most impact on you as an individual. Look at projects near where you live or work, or projects along your commute. Do you agree with what is proposed? Are there other projects, that aren’t listed, that you think are more important? Keep in mind that the TIP is a budget – it tells you what projects have been proposed, along with a brief description, where they would be, and when they would take place. It does NOT address details such as project design. That comes later. Your chance to comment on design is facilitated by the agency who is in charge of the project.

    5. Why is the TIP so hard to understand? The TIP is designed to provide a lot of information – much of which is complicated even on its own. While some details may seem unnecessary to you, those details are important to someone else. For example, you may only care about the project description, while someone else may only care about the cost of the project, and a third person may only care about who is paying for it. The TIP provides all those details in one place.

    6. Are there tricks (or “TIPS”) to finding projects I’m interested in? There are two quick things you can do to help you find projects you may be interested in.

    Search. If you are looking at the document online (in PDF format), push the “Ctrl” key then “F” at the same time, to activate the “find” function. You’ll see a box appear in the upper right corner of your screen. Use this to type in key words to search for projects you care about. For example, if you want to know what is planned for Cole Road, type in “Cole” and click “next.”

    Use the “Major Changes” list. This list – available during the public comment period – highlights projects that are new, removed, advanced, or delayed in the draft new TIP as compared to the current TIP. Many projects remain in the TIP for the full five years of the budget (or longer). The “major changes” list helps you focus on what is new or changed by weeding out projects that are simply continuing on their multi-year tracks.

    Want more help? Watch for my next blog on how to read the TIP project list. In the meantime, you can always contact COMPASS staff for assistance by calling 855-2558 or info@compassidaho.org

    Friday, June 19, 2015

    What will 7¢ a gallon save you?

    On July 1, our state fuel tax will increase by 7¢ per gallon, and our annual vehicle registration fees will increase as well. In total, the increases are expected to raise nearly $95 million in additional transportation funding per year. That “new” money will be used to help address a $262 million backlog, statewide, in transportation maintenance.

    I like low gas prices as much as the next person, but I’ll be glad to see the increase. While I understand that even small increases in fuel costs can be tough, especially when budgets are tight, we all will reap the benefits. You might even save some money!

    Transportation delays, caused by everything from a lack of maintenance to a lack of capacity to a traffic wreck, have economic and social costs — to individuals, to businesses, and to the community. A poorly maintained or inefficient transportation system costs you time, and, quite literally, costs you money.

    Time you lose with your friends and family can’t be replaced. While it’s hard to put a dollar value on missing your daughter’s first “at bat” in softball or your son’s band concert, because you were stuck in traffic, you know you’ll never get those moments back. They are truly priceless.

    On the other end of your commute, if you and your coworkers are chronically late due to traffic, that can impact your employer’s bottom line, which can trickle down and affect you. Lower profits can lead to fewer raises, less benefits, and even layoffs. 

    We all also pay for an inefficient transportation system in the goods we buy. If a trucking company must reroute its trucks to avoid a weight restricted bridge or plan for extra travel time to account for being stuck in traffic, they are going to charge more to haul their goods. That cost eventually works its way to us – the consumers. The more it costs to ship a loaf of bread from the bakery to the store, the more we pay for it.

    In addition to costs of delay, we also all pay more to maintain our cars if we drive on poorly maintained roads. Have you ever hit a big pothole and knew immediately you just knocked your wheels out of alignment? That is a direct cost to you of a poorly maintained road. According to a national transportation research group, the average motorist pays about $377 per year in additional vehicle operating costs as a result of driving on bad roads. Tire wear, front end alignments, and other maintenance costs are accelerated and compounded when roads fall into disrepair. In addition, you also pay the cost of the fuel you burn when stuck in traffic, going nowhere.

    So, while you will be paying more at the pump and when you register your car, you’ll also have savings in other areas. Unfortunately, those savings aren’t as easy to see. It’s hard to notice what you don’t pay – the loaf of bread that didn’t cost more because of extra transportation costs, the alignment you didn’t have to get because you didn’t hit that pothole, the family event you weren’t late for.

    As you fill your tank for the first time after the tax increase in July, pause for a moment to consider what those extra few cents are buying you.

    Don’t let the Treasure Valley fall through the cracks

    Monday, May 18, 2015

    Congress needs to step up, too

    On April 11, 2015, the Idaho legislature passed a bill to increase funding to maintain Idaho’s roads and bridges by nearly $95 million per year. It was a much-needed boost for Idaho’s – and the Treasure Valley’s – transportation system.

    However, call me greedy, but it is not enough. COMPASS estimates a $159 million per year shortfall for Ada and Canyon Counties alone. While the additional funding will help, it will be divided statewide, so will only represent a drop in the bucket for the Treasure Valley.

    We’ll continue to work with Idaho citizens and the Idaho legislature to find ways to meet transportation funding needs. However, while the Idaho legislature made some much-needed progress in 2015, the burden doesn’t fall entirely on them. Congress needs to step up, too.

    There are two interrelated issues on the federal level that are hampering our ability to address our transportation needs.

    First, we need new federal transportation legislation. The current act, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or “MAP-21,” expires May 31, 2015 – just 13 days from now! This bill was passed in July 2012 and was originally set to expire – and be replaced with a new bill – no later than October 2014. Shortly before the bill expired, Congress extended it until May 31, 2015.

    May 31 is coming quickly and it appears that members of Congress will once again pass a short-term extension. These short-term extensions simply delay substantive action and hamper the ability of local and state transportation agencies to implement transportation projects.

    Without a long-term transportation authorization bill, federal transportation funding will continue to be distributed in drips and drabs. The transportation bill is what allows the federal government to distribute federal transportation funding around the nation. If the bill were to expire without being extended, federally funded transportation projects would grind to a halt, as funding cannot be distributed without a transportation bill to authorize that distribution.

    Planning for future projects would also stall, because states and regions don’t know how much funding they can expect in the long term, and what policy or priority changes a new authorization bill might bring. Plus, as projects delay, project costs increase, thus putting additional burden on the already strapped Highway Trust Fund.

    This, in turn, brings us to the second issue: federal transportation funding. Quite simply, the federal Highway Trust Fund is running out of money. The fund, which is used to provide transportation funding to states and local agencies, is funded through the federal fuel tax. That tax hasn’t been increased since 1993, meaning we are trying to pay for 2015 projects with a 1993 income. It just doesn’t work. Not only are we behind by 22 years’ worth of inflation, but decreases in driving and increases in fuel efficiency mean that the amount of money being collected is not keeping pace with needs.

    The highway trust fund nearly went broke last August, but was “saved” at the last minute with an infusion of other funds. There is talk again of using other funds to contribute to the Highway Trust Fund – mainly by making changes to the tax code. This idea appeals to many, as it raises more funding for the Highway Trust Fund without raising taxes. However, it is not a viable long-term solution.

    We need a reliable funding source for the Highway Trust Fund to pay for transportation projects and we need a long-term transportation bill to allow the funds to be spent and to provide our transportation agencies with long-term policies, priorities, and expectations so they can plan for future needs.

    The question is, how do we get there?
    • We need Congress to step up and raise the fuel tax and index that fuel tax to inflation so that we are not in this same situation again in a year, or two, or ten.
    • We need to recognize that the fuel tax, even if raised, will not be able to cover our long-term transportation needs due to increasing fuel efficiency.
    • We need Congress to start seriously looking at long-term funding options, such as a vehicle mile tax, to eventually replace, or augment, the federal fuel tax without dipping into other existing funds.
    • We need to tell our Congressmen that we, their constituents, understand that sometimes the right decision and the popular decision are not the same thing, and that we have their backs. 
    We need a modern, efficient transportation system to support economic prosperity, a high quality of life, and a better life for our children.

    Failure to act now simply kicks the can down the road. Let’s tell Congress that is not what we need.
    Don’t let the Treasure Valley fall through the cracks.

    Monday, May 4, 2015

    What does $95 million mean to the Treasure Valley?

    After more fits and starts at putting together a transportation funding package than I want to count, the Idaho legislature passed a bill to increase transportation revenue by an estimated $95 million per year in the wee hours of Saturday, April 11. As some had predicted, it turned out to be the “going home” bill.

    First, I’d like to say “thank you.” Thank you to the many members of both houses and both parties who considered “out of the box” ideas, worked to educate themselves on transportation funding issues, or drafted legislation. While I’ll admit it wasn’t always pretty, I do believe the conversation about transportation funding was raised to a new level in 2015, and that in itself was valuable, in addition to the $95 million.

    Now that the dust has settled, what does the nearly $95 million per year in increased transportation funding mean for Ada and Canyon Counties?

    1.    The estimated $95 million per year in additional funding will be split between the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) (60%) and local roadway agencies (40%).
    ·         ITD is expected to receive approximately $56.5 million statewide per year in additional funding. It is unknown at this point how much of that funding will be spent in Ada and Canyon Counties.
    ·         Local roadway agencies will receive approximately $37.6 million statewide per year in additional funding.
    ·         Of that $37.6 million, local agencies in Ada and Canyon Counties combined are projected to receive approximately $9.2 million per year in additional revenue.  
    2.    The additional funding can only be spent on maintenance of roads and bridges. Of the projected $159 million shortfall in the two-county area, approximately $30 million per year is maintenance on local roads and bridges. The $9.2 million discussed above will be used toward this $30 million shortfall.
    3.    The additional funding cannot be used to expand or improve roads and bridges (e.g., add traffic lanes) nor can it be used for public transportation. Of the $159 million annual shortfall in Ada and Canyon Counties, $129 million falls into these categories. The additional funding does not help here.
    4.    ITD will receive additional funding for the next two years if there is a budget surplus at the end of the fiscal year (“surplus eliminator” funding). It is unknown at this point what the total amount will be or how much of that will be spent in Ada and Canyon Counties.

    So, where does that leave us?

    In short, it leaves us short. It helps, but does not cover our maintenance shortfall, nor does it help the Treasure Valley prepare for the future by providing for public transportation or expanding our roads and bridges.

    We still need…

    1.    Local option funding authorization to allow local agencies to ask citizens if they want to tax themselves for a specific project (see my blog of April 14, 2015).
    2.    Dedicated funding for public transportation. Right now, we do not have this in Idaho. This could be local option funding, it could be something else, or it could be a combination of funding sources. We can’t serve our growing population if we can’t provide adequate public transportation.
    3.    A means to “grow” our transportation funding. It took 19 years for the Idaho legislature to increase the gas tax, and even then it was a difficult, painful process that yielded far less than needed. We need to index our gas tax to inflation, or provide some other means of automatic increases, so that future legislators are not forced into this position again. Even with the $95 million increase, we continue to fall behind.
    4.    To continue to look at “other” ways to fund our transportation system. Our gas tax revenues will continue to fall further behind as vehicles become more fuel efficient. We need to be thinking about what we can, and should, do in the future. While the concept of a fee based on vehicle miles travelled is not popular, something that raises funds based on an individual’s use of the transportation system needs to be on our radar.
    5.    Congress to act. In Idaho, 54% of our transportation funding comes from the federal government. This is extremely high compared to most states (which is an issue in and of itself), but it highlights the importance of federal funding to Idaho. We need Congress to follow Idaho’s lead and increase the federal fuel tax – unchanged since 1993 – to help keep pace with inflation. I’ll talk more about that in my next blog.

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again…this is too important an issue to only discuss the three months of the year when the Idaho legislature is in session. We need to keep the conversation alive, year-round, at the local, state, and federal levels.

    Don’t let the Treasure Valley fall through the cracks

    Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho

    COMPASS is the designated Metropolitan Planning Organization responsible for transportation planning in Ada and Canyon Counties. The COMPASS Board comprises 39 members representing the cities, counties, highway districts, educational institutions, state agencies, and other entities within the two counties. COMPASS plays an important role in making decisions about future long-range transportation needs in the Treasure Valley, taking into consideration environmental and economic factors that affect the quality of life.