Saturday, May 5, 2007

Roads... Poor planning or booming econimic byproduct

We've all driven the I-84 "Oregon Trail" ruts between Meridian and Nampa. I remember not long ago when it was resurfaced where the asphalt used the first go-round didn't harden correctly and we had cars and trucks driving with 2" of asphalt stuck to their tires... seems this track of road just seems doomed to issues!

One might note when driving the rutted interstate, that the ruts line up with car tires and not truck tires, yup those ruts are made by our cars and not that truck traffic.

As you know, it is hard to get any more cars on that road during rush hour. Add some construction and we tend to mess up that commute even more. Notice as well, that Meridian is also not exempt from traffic issues... There are days, I just hate to go outside my subdivision here in Mallard Landing to go anywhere... I just dread the bumper to bumper traffic to get to the hardware store or to go out for a cup of good coffee. There is no doubt that we have traffic issues everywhere here in the valley, but what the heck happened to cause all these issues? Poor planning or something else?

Idaho has grown so quickly that we were 5th in the Nation last year for growth. The US Census Bureau has estimated Idaho's population as of July 1, 2006 to be almost 1.5 million... a gain of 2.6% over the numbers from 2005. Idaho non-farm employment growth has accelerated every year since 2002 with momentum pushing that growth to 4.6% in 2006. This is the strongest economic growth in our great state in over 12 years!

Is it a wonder that the population and traffic is exploding? We have jobs and are attracting employers to Idaho at an unprecedented rate... "If you build it, they will come" seems to hold true for Idaho. We have built good business tax advantages, broadband, transportation infrastructure and have an education system that has been meeting the requirements of those employers (we will discuss the Community College issue in a later blog). These things attract business and they have come. Our economic estimate is up from last year as expected because of this growth... State income as of the end of March was $1.809 Billion, where the estimated budget we used during the session expected $1.829 Billion.

Yes, there are a number of folks moving to Idaho and as the population grows, so does the traffic. I believe a little of both have had a compounding impact on how we can get around. The primary funds used for maintenance and repair are tax dollars received from fuel sales (both Federal and State). Even though the number of vehicles have gone up, the fuel used per vehicle has reduced over the years so the tax dollars received per vehicle has also been reduced at the same rate. Increased traffic with less dollars to maintain the roads, compounded by increased costs of maintenance is the recipe for what we are experiencing today.

As we experience the byproduct of our success to stimulate business and growth, we have to ask what the heck do we do now? We have many choices before us, I see few that will be a comfortable choice for any of us, but some must be made. Here are a few of the choices I see today:

1. Reduce ITD (ID Transportation Dept.) maintenance costs: (brainstorming here)...

ACHD, is it a value added organization or just a fluffy "middle man"? Should ITD provide road funds directly to the cities in Ada county for management of their road systems? Funds are allocated from ITD to ACHD for Ada county maintenance functions. Would we be better off cutting out some of the middle man infrastructure or would those costs just be duplicated in infrastructure Boise, Meridian and Eagle?

Studded tires, many of us used studded tires way longer than we really need to. Studs become little road grinders when we don't have ice on the roads... causing ruts, noise and dust pollution. Is there an alternative? OR and WA have completed studies that indicate they spend between $12M and $50M every year in studded tire mitigation and repair (ruts, new lines, noise and dust control). Does Idaho need to spend more money studying the fact that studded tires cause damage that requires extra maintenance costs annually? I believe we can safely assume that our annual maintenance costs fall within the $12 to $50 million dollar range as well (inclusive of city and county costs).

Public Transportation that would really reduce traffic. Adding more buses that have very low ridership doesn't seem to be the answer, they just add to the congestion. Would light rail that could be used all over the Treasure valley help reduce maintenance and growth costs by reducing the number of cars that travel on the roads?

... just a few thoughts here, any other ideas? I've asked ITD to look at some things that could reduce costs as well as increase revenue...

2. Increase Revenue: (again, Brainstorming here...)

Create an annual Studded Tire excise tax? These funds would be dedicated to the extra maintenance requirements caused by the damage done by studded tires or could be used to partially fund public transportation to help reduce local traffic and the damage caused by studded tires.

Increase taxes on fuel to help off-set some of those reduced taxes coming in per vehicle due to better fuel economy? That's a hard thing to do with fuel prices the way they are now. There are some folks that are stretched to purchase fuel to get to work as it is. (...and I hate to see any increased taxes)

Increase registration fees? Again, I hate to see us increase those fees and the Idaho Constitution keeps us from using all of those fee increases for just road maintenance. This action would likely need some sort of Constitutional amendment to re-apply some of the fees that were already increased for registration fees.

Increased Signage fees? Most will ask, "what the heck are you talking about?". ITD charges vendors for those little signs along the highways that point you to their business (lodging, meals, fuel... little blue signs with the vendors emblem on them). There are quite a number of these signs along the roadways and Idaho controls the rate of the fees paid for these signs. I have no idea about what type of revenue this could generate, but it's currently VERY cheap advertising for vendors (less than an ad in the yellow pages of your local phone book).

Is there a way to allocate revenue to where the traffic is while still taking care of the rural roads in Idaho that don't have the traffic to support their maintenance for public safety? Is there some sort of revenue stream that we haven't found to help with our road maintenance issues?

Our state's prosperity and growth allows us to enjoy many things here in the valley that 30 years ago, many of us couldn't even imagine. And for those visionaries that did imagine that prosperity and growth, it appears we missed planning for some of it's side effects...



Studies completed by our neighbors in Oregon and Washington:

Washington State Study

Oregon State Study

1 comment:

Alan said...

I think the studded tire excise tax is a good idea. The folks who use them would pay for the damage. I don't use them, but I guess I end up paying to repair damage I don't cause.

I think planning is the key problem, and Eagle Road is Exhibit # 1. Meridian Road south of the interstate in headed in the same direction as Eagle Road.

Traffic circles at main intersections might help, or pverpasses, but they're pretty expensive.