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Road to Ruin

The long strange trip to a vote


The debate last week over a phased-in 7-cent hike in Idaho's fuel tax was one of those classic parliamentary shows where legislators say unexpected things, vote in weird groupings and produce unexpected results.

It started with a fortune cookie, moved through testosterone and Band-Aids and ended with philosophizing on the proper role of government.

It went down in flames: 27 ayes to 43 nays.

House Republican leaders stuck their necks out for Gov. Butch Otter, arguing on behalf of the bill.

Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke recalled his fortune from the night prior: "Give time and thought to all you do." He then explained how Idaho's low population density and high number of winding road miles mean Idahoans pay more for asphalt upkeep than citizens of more populated states.

Oregon has 60 folks per mile whereas Idaho only has 29.8, according to Bedke's calculations.

Then, Post Falls Republican Rep. Frank Henderson picked up the, er, ball and ran with it.

He praised Otter's 11th hour Executive Order, which placed numerous stringent conditions on the Idaho Transportation Department's future funding, demanding that each of the findings of a recent audit report be quickly implemented.

"There was a lot of testosterone in making that suggestion," Henderson declared.

Then the Democratic leader Rep. John Rusche rose to speak, hinting at first that he supported maintaining Idaho roads.

"We do need to preserve our shared assets, not just the roads and bridges, but also our schools and universities," Rusche said. But then he acknowledged the plight of seniors and low-income drivers who had contacted him to say they were already suffering in the down economy.

"Based on that input, I will be voting no. It's not the right time to raise taxes for them," the Lewiston physician concluded.

A handful of naysayers from both sides of the aisle—Marv Hagedorn, a Meridian Republican and Grant Burgoyne, a Boise Democrat—called the incremental gas tax hike a Band-Aid and suggested revisiting the issue a year or two down the road.

Then, an interesting thing happened. Rep. Steve Hartgen, an Otter appointee from Twin Falls stood up and spoke about his brother being involved in national transportation issues and having chatted with several lawmakers about the state of Idaho roads.

Unda' the Rotunda fired up the Google and quickly located Hartgen's brother, David Hartgen, a senior fellow at the Libertarian Reason Foundation, who has done serious analysis of the nation's highway system for many years.

He recently produced the 17th annual version of the Reason Foundation's series on state highway capacity.

The Reason Foundation—whose magazine, Reason, can sometimes be found in Otter's office (it profiled him in 2006 during his campaign for governor)—writes frequently about expanding road miles to ease congestion, de-emphasizing rail and other transit options.

Many have asked why Otter is so concerned with funding the Transportation Department that he would stake his first term as governor on it? His administration's talking points—that the state's crumbling roadways have reached an emergency state—don't quite answer that.

The tens of millions of dollars that flow to Idaho gravel pits and engineering firms and private road crews are not a complete answer either; much of the maintenance work that Otter stresses is done by state road crews.

So, perhaps the Hartgen brothers had led us to another answer. Perhaps Otter believes roads are the philosophically pure free-market solution to traffic annoyances.

David Hartgen, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., and is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, said he had never spoken to Otter and did not know if Idaho's governor had read his studies.

"I encourage people not to be drawn into modal battles," Hartgen told BW. "Some people think I'm anti-transit, but they haven't read my highway reports which are pretty scathing also."

Hartgen's reports for the Reason Foundation take a hard-line, practical stance, estimating traffic congestion and predicting the number of new road miles and fixes needed to ease that congestion along with, most importantly, the cost.

He suggests inexpensive fixes like better left-hand turns rather than new light rail lines in places like the Treasure Valley.

His numbers come out a bit lower than Idaho's own estimates for transportation needs, and Hartgen said he consulted with one or two Idaho lawmakers to help clear up the discrepancy. Idaho's numbers include more roads than just the state highway systems that the Reason Foundation analyzes.

Hartgen's report asserts that the United States can build its way out of congestion for a relatively inexpensive price tag, mocking the old adage that new highway lanes will inevitably fill to capacity levels again.

"I'm not talking about paving over Broadway here," Hartgen said. "We're talking about spot actions."

Now, an astute reader at this point may have noticed that we have not asked Otter what he thinks. The governor has been out of town, likely brooding over the 27-43 vote and the closure of Tamarack. But we asked his communications chief Mark Warbis, who stuck to the talking points and said he'd never heard of the Reason Foundation.

Hartgen's advice to avoid modal battles could be part of Otter's problem though. All but three Democrats voted against the gas tax hike, some complaining that the governor has not provided a solution for local jurisdictions to reasonably institute local option taxes for transit needs.

A package that included more broad transportation funding may have won him some more votes, but it would not have been enough. Even if he won 15 more Democratic votes—not all of which were guaranteed—it would not have turned the gas tax vote, and some Republicans votes would have been lost in the shuffle.

Otter's next best move would be to take the advice of Challis Republican Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett who said in her debate on the gas tax: "I don't change, or if I do, I want you to hit me on the head and straighten me out."

Otter continues to whack the Idaho Transportation Department on behalf of Barrett and other lawmakers rather than hitting the Legislature where it hurts.

Moscow Democrat Shirley Ringo gave Otter a clue when she gave him her vote on the gas tax: I'll support upkeep of roadway infrastructure, but let's fund some human infrastructure, too.

She was talking about universities and health care, but it could easily apply to her colleagues as well. Perhaps a round of subscriptions to Reason magazine, or just a round of reason, would be a start.

To view the reports and the fuel tax vote, visit