As the 2008 legislative session nears, an increasing number of political leaders are joining the campaign to find a way to fix Idaho's crumbling transportation system. Among the recent additions is House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who said he has been kicking around some draft legislation that would address the need for more money to build roads.
"I was one of the ones last year that said if you're going to fix transportation in this valley, [you can't do it] without building roads," Moyle said.
He points to the growing need for an alternative north-south traffic artery to relieve pressure on Eagle Road, as well as the widening of Interstate 84 west of Meridian, as just two examples of projects that are desperately needed, yet woefully underfunded.
Moyle said he is in the process of meeting with other legislators in an effort to find out just what other lawmakers want and what they would support. He said many Treasure Valley lawmakers agree that something needs to be done about transportation, but finding a balance between competing interests will be the tricky part.
"You have to have the votes," he said.
The key to getting those votes is bridging the urban/rural gap, Moyle said.
"If we keep this Boise vs. the rest of the world mentality, we're going to run into problems," he said, adding, "If these guys in Boise think they're going to jam this down the rural [legislators'] throats, they're not going to get anywhere."
It's the same argument that stymied efforts in the past to approve funding for mass transit. While many in the metropolitan areas see the need as desperate, those in rural counties feel money would be far better spent on building and maintaining roads.
It also came into play last year when a bill that would have allowed regional authorities the ability to use a local option sales tax to fund transit failed to make it out of committee, due in large part to opposition from rural lawmakers.
That bill, written by the Coalition for Regional Public Transportation, is in the process of being revamped to include funding for roads, as well as transit.
"There's always been this great-state-of-Ada problem in the Legislature," Moyle said.
While he declined any specifics of possible legislation he may introduce, Moyle said he is looking at several funding options. Some of these could be done without raising taxes, while others would mean an increase, and still others would follow the local option sales tax plan, allowing voters to choose whether to raise taxes.
The idea of giving voters the ultimate decision in the future of taxes seems to be a popular one.
"Legislators are trying to find an answer, and giving the voters the ability to decide seems to be one of the more popular proposals," said Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell.
The coalition, made up of concerned parties from across the valley, wants to make sure that any tax would be collected on a regional level, not the city level.
"We wouldn't want Boise citizens to pass funding for regional transportation, Nampa to pass it and Meridian to deny it," said Ray Stark, vice president of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce and a coalition member. "Regional transportation needs to be regional."
Stark said the coalition is still focused on including a transit component in any bill, but feels the addition of road funding is giving them the momentum and support they lacked a year ago.
"There are areas of the state that may not have a transit need, but most areas have highway needs," he said. "In our area, a local option sales tax would fund our long-range transportation plan.
"Transportation is one of the main priority issues of the Treasure Valley," Stark said. "People are realizing with increased congestion and air-quality concerns, that we need to come up with some solutions."
For Moyle and others, it seems like it will be up to the Legislature to take action to change the way roads are built and maintained. Moyle is critical of the Idaho Transportation Department, saying the agency and board haven't done an adequate job meeting the state's needs. His comments echo statements Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter made on Nov. 14 in front of the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho.
During his address, Otter chastised the department for failing to show the full financial accountability Otter had asked for when he first took office.
"There's been some, but I haven't seen near enough," he said. "We need some proof to show we know how to responsibly use the money we have."
Otter said it's clear that the state needs more funding to meet road building and maintenance needs, but that the first step is to make ITD more efficient.
Otter also identified several other funding sources he would like to use to help pay for roads, including the $17 million operating budget of the Idaho State Highway Patrol. Currently, the agency is funded with a portion of the revenue from the state gas tax. Instead, Otter said he will push to fund the Highway Patrol through the state's general fund. He also said he plans to ask for a cut in the amount of the gas tax that goes to cities and counties.
"We're going to have to do something pretty dramatic," Otter said.
Otter said he would also support a local option sales tax if it makes it through the Legislature. "I've always believed that we've had 44 counties that have a pretty good idea of how to run their own county. We've got over 202 cities that have a pretty good idea of how to run their cities," Otter said.
He added that he would have supported the last local option sales tax bill, "because I think they should have a bigger share of the responsibility in their transportation infrastructure."
But Otter, who lives on a ranch in Star, followed that statement by saying that he would not support funding for mass transit. "I'm still suspicious of it," he said.
Stark said while he's thrilled about Otter's endorsement of the local option tax, he views Otter's opinion on transit as just part of the educational process.
"That is a reflection of the educational process and campaign that would need to take place once the Legislature and governor approve the bill" he said, promising an effort that would be modeled after the successful community college campaign.
"We're pleased that the momentum is on our side and the public and elected officials and business leaders see the need for transportation improvement locally and throughout the state," Stark said.
For his part, Moyle said he'll wait to see what the consensus is among lawmakers. He added that he will hold off from introducing any legislation until he has a clearer picture of what other bills may find their way into of committee.