Senate transportation chairman equates road and bridge maintenance to owning a home (video)

Mitch Coffman Headlines, Video

(Note: This is the second installment of a two-part interview with Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. For part one, click here.)

These days, it seems nearly everyone is struggling for a bit more income. Families and individuals are prioritizing what they need, versus what they want, and choosing accordingly.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, says the same situation applies to the state of Idaho concerning road and bridge maintenance.

As time ticks along and the state defers overhauls on some problem projects (the extremely busy Meridian interchange, for example), the question becomes what to do with limited resources?

Hammond compares road issues throughout the state to his own home. “I would compare it to myself as a homeowner. And, I have several needs. My family has gotten bigger and I need to expand my home, but I’ve also got a roof over my home that is degrading, yet I’ve got limited funds. So, I have to make a decision. Do I create that expansion to better accommodate my family, or do I first of all take care of the roof so what we have doesn’t degrade further? Well, it makes more sense to take care of that roof and make sure that’s where I first put my money.”

Hammond sees his family situation paralleling Idaho’s road maintenance and expansion. “The expansions are nice, but the highest priority has to be maintaining what we’ve already got because that’s what really gets expensive. You can continue to maintain those roads for quite a while but once they start degrading, if you let them degrade to any level of significance, then what you have to do is tear it all up and start over, which becomes much more expensive than just maintaining them.”

Bridges however, are a little bit different, according to Hammond. With bridges, there are different levels of degradation and they must be addressed accordingly.

“Now the bridges, that’s a different issue and in terms of deficiency I haven’t seen the specific criteria as to how degraded or what kinds of concerns we really have over those bridges,” said Hammond. “But, there are different levels of degradation, the chief way that a bridge degrades is the bridge deck itself. And so you don’t necessarily have to tear the whole bridge out and start over, but often you do have to take the deck apart and re-pour the deck and put new steel in.”

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the total number of bridges in Idaho in 2010 was 4,132. Of those, 414 were deemed as being deficient. That’s just under 10 percent.

The Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) has some funding each year for maintenance projects, said Hammond. But the problem as identified by ITD and by a governor’s task force on roads and bridges goes far beyond the department’s resources. It is estimated that the state has $300-$400 million in needs, but clearly does not have that kind of money to attack the infrastructure deficiencies.

Thus, ITD relies on a five-year plan to address the most pressing needs, with the more meaningful projects bubbling to the top as the plan is updated. “It used to be that they (ITD) just fixed the worst projects,” explained Hammond. “Now, they’re trying to take a more mindful approach and look at those projects that best serve the needs of Idaho and Idahoans and put those as the high priority.”

To deal with these infrastructure problems, Hammond said that Idahoans must be ready at some point to “pay the piper.”  He adds, “None of us can afford to be paying any more taxes. But, at some point, we as Idahoans have to face the fact that we aren’t spending enough money to properly care for our roads …”

One way to raise funds for roads and bridges throughout the state is the often-talked-about gas tax. Idaho’s gas tax is 25 cents per gallon, same as the rate for diesel. Neighboring states levy similar rates: Oregon’s gas tax is 24 cents, Montana’s is 27.75 cents, Utah is 24.5 cents and Washington is 28 cents.

Is there a chance Idahoans could see a hike in the gas tax in the near future? Gov. Butch Otter proposed a gas tax increase and a hike in vehicle registration fees during the 2009 legislative session, which nearly set a record for length as lawmakers debated the issues, then ultimately rejected the governor’s proposals.

While a gas tax increase has not seen the light of day since then, Hammond says it will more than likely be looked at, but that it should be based on the mileage that individuals drive. However, he stressed that there is not technology right now that would make such a plan feasible.

Video for the Hammond series by Mitch Coffman, IdahoReporter.com.