The Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) in testimony Thursday emphasized its reliance on the federal government in expanding and maintaining Idaho’s roads. “Idaho remains increasingly reliant on the federal government to fund our transportation needs,” ITD director Brian Ness told lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) Thursday.
Idaho spent more of its own state money than federal money on construction 15 years ago, but that ratio has tilted toward more federal funds. Money from Washington, D.C., will cover $302 million of the $579 million budget ITD is proposing. Idaho also received $182 million in federal funding last year. More strings are tied to federal funding, including higher wages for construction workers and environmental requirements that can lead to delays, so federal dollars aren’t as cost-effective as state money, according to testimony. Vehicle registrations fees and the state fuel tax, but not the state general fund, make up the state portion of highway funding. Ness said it would be difficult to shift more state money to construction, given the cost of maintenance programs like plowing snow and replacing signs and guardrails. “Unless we have more state funds, I don’t see us squeezing a lot of money out of the operations area.”
The future of ITD’s funding contains some uncertainty. Ness told lawmakers that the current federal funding program for roads expires at the end of the month. Both the House and Senate are working on a 1-2 year extension, but that could come with a reduction in money flowing to the Gem State. Idaho receives more in federal funding than it sends in federal fuel tax dollars, making it a done state. Other states that send more than they give are looking to turn the tables. “The outcome of the struggle between donor and done states is important to Idaho and we will be watching it closely,” Ness said.
State lawmakers are also looking at finding an alternative source of revenue for road construction. Money from the state tax on gas has not kept up with other taxes and fees due to rising fuel prices and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. Ness said ITD’s budget is having trouble keeping pace, and currently has state funding with less real spending power than in 2001. “Without increased funding, the condition of our roads and highways will decrease rapidly,” he said.
ITD officials say the next transportation budget is smaller than the current, but it’s hard to make a straight-line comparison given the influx of stimulus dollars. Ness said there have been $8 million in reductions since July. “We do not wait for the governor for a holdback,” he said. “When revenue is down, we adjust our budget accordingly.” Those revenues are down $1.8 million through January, so further reductions could be coming.
Ness has been on the job for one month. He replaced former ITD Director Pam Lowe, who has filed a lawsuit challenging her firing. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, asked Ness when he will put in new policies at ITD. He said it will be a few months. “About May, you may start to see me putting my mark on the organization,” he said. Before then, he’ll meet with all ITD employees and outline his vision of the department. He said his reforms would include looking at staffing, to make sure there isn’t too much overlap in work, but also sufficient checks and balances. “I will review every program and every expense to make sure they are in the best interests of Idaho.”