Monday, December 1, 2008

Transportation remains a priority

By Phylis King, Shirley Ringo and James Ruchti

All over Idaho, families and small businesses are relieved that gas prices have come down – for now, anyway. But a growing backlog of road and bridge projects amid serious revenue shortfalls have Idahoans wondering how we’ll pay for our state’s current transportation infrastructure needs and advance better transportation options for the future.

Democratic lawmakers will be listening intently when Gov. Butch Otter talks about transportation in his State of the State address next month. Will he propose ideas that raise money from a variety of sources, or will most of the pain fall on middle-class families and small businesses? Will he buck his party’s legislative leadership and endorse local-option taxing authority as an effective tool to solve transportation needs? Idahoans also will be watching to see if President-elect Obama follows through on his campaign pledge to give state governments at least $25 billion to help build and fix highways, roads, bridges, airports and rail systems.

The road ahead is uncertain – on both the state and federal level - and it’s too soon to speculate over the specifics of what we’ll be discussing two months from now. But we will keep several goals in mind as we approach the coming legislative session.

First of all, the Treasure Valley – our state’s primary economic engine - needs help. Transportation planners say it now takes 35 minutes to drive I-84 from Caldwell to downtown Boise, saddling Canyon County residents with a longer commute than residents of Salt Lake, Seattle and Portland. Accidents, bad weather and construction can make the trip take twice as long. Better public transportation would vastly improve the situation, yet the state’s Republican leadership last year rejected a local-option taxation proposal crafted by a statewide coalition of local governments, businesses and chambers of commerce.

Ada County Highway District residents voted by a two-thirds majority in November to raise vehicle registration fees to help pay for local infrastructure. State government needs to give citizens the local-option tool to make similar decisions on a regional basis. Otherwise, drivers will continue to lose productivity and family time while sitting in traffic; small businesses will suffer as time-strapped drivers pass by; and businesses of all sizes will think twice about locating in a region beset by gridlock and declining air quality.

Second, we must maximize transportation funding so it puts Idahoans back to work in good-paying jobs to meet infrastructure needs all over the state. President-elect Obama’s proposed aid to states may help, since it would reportedly be targeted toward projects that have been approved and are ready to go. We will also look at stretching our transportation dollars through matching fund pools, and pursuing efficiency while maintaining quality and safety on road- and bridge-building projects.

Third, while it appears certain that some fee increases will be necessary, they should be modest in size and phased in as the economy improves so middle-class families won’t feel any more pain than they’re already shouldering. Let’s bear in mind that although gas prices are down for the time being, people are struggling with overall inflation as well as declining home values and job uncertainty.

As legislators, we know we can’t afford to delay action on Idaho’s transportation needs, but nor can we afford to waste time or taxpayer money. We look forward to working with the governor and our colleagues to create innovative, cost-effective transportation solutions that help Idaho families and small businesses and put our state back on the road to prosperity.

Representatives Phylis King of Boise, Shirley Ringo of Moscow and James Ruchti of Pocatello all serve on the House Transportation Committee.