Open Road

Proliferation of transportation talk shifts emphasis to the system


U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson's wife is part of the solution. But she's also part of the problem.

Kathy Simpson drives a Prius, which means that for every extra mile she squeezes out of a gallon of gas, the federal and state governments are getting pinched in fuel tax revenue, most of which goes back to state transportation departments for road projects.

"If you look down the road at the future, what are you going to do when you get 100 miles to the gallon?" Rep. Simpson asked in an interview with BW.

Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter spent all summer Power Pointing this idea across the state in an effort to convince voters and their legislators to do something about the growing shortfall in highway funding and the corresponding rise in the cost of road work.

"We're hopeful that taking this to every corner of the state and getting input from people will lead to, as we've been saying in these things, trying to build consensus," said Otter spokesman Jon Hanian.

About 1,200 people attended the seven statewide meetings, culminating in a panel discussion in Boise, which Sen. Mike Crapo attended. Simpson and Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer also appeared in Boise together earlier this month to talk about America's growing infrastructure needs. And the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, will hold a seminar in November at Boise State with nationally recognized transportation policy experts.

While each of these transportation meetings is motivated by a different set of assumptions, there is a lot of discussion in Boise and across Idaho about how people get from one place to another. And a similar discussion is occurring in Washington, D.C., in advance of next year's reauthorization of the federal highway funding bill.

"It's a very, very different conversation in Washington than in recent memory," said Robert Puentes, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution.

For years, federal highway dollars have flowed to the states in the form of grants with very little oversight or regional planning, what Puentes calls "pork and politics."

The 2005 highway funding bill contained more that 6,000 earmarks, including the now famous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska that Gov. and now Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin cheered, then canceled and kept the money, instead building a road that fizzles out where the bridge would have been.

But fueled by high gas prices, a renewed sensitivity about foreign oil, smog, growing concern for global warming and the realization that the federal highway funding system is both broke and broken, a number of new ideas are appearing on the horizon.

"All those big challenges are not being met by a transportation policy that promotes road building and driving," said Petra Todorovich, who leads a project called America 2050, calling for a new plan for America's transportation, energy and water infrastructure.

It's a notion championed by Simpson and his unlikely bedfellow, Blumenauer, a Portland alternative transit and bicycling hawk.

Simpson and Blumenauer appeared in Boise about a week after Otter's final road-funding meeting to talk about America's infrastructure needs. They are proposing a once-in-a-century plan to rebuild the transportation, power grid and water infrastructure that, in the 19th and 20th centuries, allowed American commerce to flourish.

And part of looking at transportation as a system requires a renewed focus on trains and other transit options.

Simpson, who backs the return of passenger trains through Idaho, sees more and more people opting for public transit.

"There's going to have to be an investment made in that up front," he said.

Crapo also acknowledges that, primarily because of expensive gas, people will be using more transit.

"Our take is that people will drive less and they would look at alternative transportation," said Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern.

At the state level, Otter and the Idaho Transportation Department say that everything is on the table, but the focus of the summer meetings was overwhelmingly on a $240 million annual shortfall in road funding.

Several groups, including the Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Smart Growth and Conservation Voters of Idaho, asked the governor to broaden his scope to include proposals for transit.

Rachel Winer, director of Idaho Smart Growth, phrases it in terms of choice for Idaho families: "They need to have choices besides just putting gas in their cars and using roads," she said.

While Winer would like Idaho, one of four states that does not fund public transit, to pony up some money, including funds for bike paths and sidewalks, she'll be happy with a solution that costs the state nothing: a local option tax.

The City of Boise sent a letter to Otter requesting that local option tax—the ability for city or county voters to tax themselves to fund things like transit projects—be part of any transportation funding proposal that he brings to the Legislature next year.

"Although roadways will continue to be the dominant mechanism by which we ensure continued mobility in much of the state, it is clear that for Idaho's rapidly urbanizing communities a range of transportation alternatives, including public transit, will be essential to any well-rounded system," Mayor Dave Bieter wrote to Otter.

Ross Borden, intergovernmental affairs manager for the city, said that statewide, there is a critical need to repair roads and bridges, but in Boise, a commuter train could help with that effort.

"We're thinking locally, more transit to take the pressure off the roads," Borden said.

While the conventional wisdom holds that roads will fill to capacity, no matter the other options, there is some indication that bus use in the Treasure Valley has lessened highway use during the past year. As bus use between Canyon and Ada counties nearly doubled in the past year, the Idaho Transportation Department saw up to 7 percent decreases in vehicle trips through the valley. Though one analyst cautions that the decrease in car trips may be more discretionary travel and not register during rush hour, it is still less rubber on the road each year.

While Otter has his hands full just convincing lawmakers to raise the gas tax or registration fees enough to fund critical road projects, there is indication that the long, expensive, political summer of '08 may have changed some attitudes.

"What I walk away with, I hardly heard anyone who didn't think there was a problem," said Republican Sen. John McGee of Caldwell, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

McGee, who supports allowing local jurisdictions to decide on transit funding needs and sees the benefits of a train across the valley, said there is growing support for doing something about transit here, even within ITD and the Governor's Office.

"It's on the forefront of the Senate transportation chairman's agenda," he said.