The collapse of a bridge last week along Interstate 5 in Washington state has raised an old question for Idaho: How safe are our roads and bridges?
“Our bridges are safe,” said Reed Hollinshead, spokesperson for the Idaho Transportation Department. “We safeguard them by inspecting them at least every two years, and more often if needed.”
Hollinshead explained that there was an unusual circumstance in the Washington collapse. He said an “external force” brought down a bridge over the Skagit River between Mt. Vernon and Burlington on May 23; that is, the incident involved an overweight load that hit an overhead bridge truss beam.
“There is only one bridge on our state system that is similar to the one that was brought down in Washington, the Del Rio Bridge on US 20B near St. Anthony,” he said. “It’s due to be replaced in 2014.”
But improving Idaho’s roads and bridges is not a new subject. Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who headed up the Governor’s Task Force on Modernizing Transportation Funding between 2009 and 2011, has been calling for road and bridge upgrades for at least the last two years.
The task force estimated a $543 million tab to fix all the problems, with $262 million of that just to retain the status quo on road and bridge conditions.
“I’m still using that old saying from the Mr. Goodwrench advertisements,” Little told IdahoReporter.com on Tuesday. “You can pay me now or you can pay me later, and it’ll be more expensive to pay me later.”
The task force heard testimony from national experts, officials from state and local government, transportation-related organizations and members of the public. “We summarized our findings in a report back at the end of 2011,” Little said. “In 2012, I met with the appropriate legislative committees about this as well. And I recently went back and reviewed the last speech I made on this subject, and my most highlighted point at that time was that if we don’t move on these items quickly, we could be in real trouble in the coming years.”
Little also said that several legislative proposals introduced toward the conclusion of this year’s legislative session were intended to address the very issues that the task force raised. Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, for example, introduced a set of proposals that would have raised taxes in the state by an estimated $236.5 million a year.
Among Brackett’s proposals were increases in taxes on both the sale of vehicles and on renting of vehicles; an increase in the taxes levied on the sale of certain automotive accessories including tires and batteries; an increase in registration fees for trucks and passenger vehicles; new fees on electric and hybrid vehicles; increased fees for overweight and oversized truck loads; and an increase in both the state’s gasoline and diesel fuel taxes.
While the legislative proposals didn’t get very far in this year’s legislative session, Brackett noted at the time of introducing the bills that “we need to begin the conversation on these things.”
Little maintains a sense of urgency about increasing funding for transportation and also notes that Idaho faces some very unique challenges with its transportation infrastructure.
“We have double the lane miles per person as do the states of Oregon, Washington and Utah,” Little said. “Not only that, but because of the shape of our state and our counties and the types of terrain we have, maintaining roads and bridges is an even greater challenge. If, for example, you’re in Nebraska, where things are mostly flat, that’s one thing. But if you’re in Orofino, Idaho, with its steep inclines, well then that increases your construction and maintenance costs significantly.”
Little also warned that Idaho needs to be preserving and reconstructing 1,300 miles of paved highway per year, yet the state is currently only doing about 800 miles per year. “We’re falling behind by about 500 miles of highway per year.”
Little concurs with Hollinshead about the Del Rio Bridge being on track for replacement in 2014, but worries about the need to upgrade and replace bridges in the years ahead.
“People don’t like to raise taxes in Idaho and I don’t hold that against them,” said the lieutenant governor. “You can put me in the ‘don’t raise taxes’ camp as well. But while some have suggested that we use state general funds to face our growing transportation challenges, Gov. Otter and I have preferred the ‘user pay’ approach, relying on fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees and so forth. I categorically prefer this approach.”