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.