Friday, April 27, 2007

Funding for Highway 75 looks bleak

Tolls proposed as alternative

Express Staff Writer

A major state Highway 75 construction project from Timmerman Junction to Ketchum will be impossible without finding some source of funding other than gas taxes.

Most highway construction is funded by gas taxes, but while fuel efficiencies have reduced the tax collected per miles driven, the need for highway construction has continued to rise. The result is more competition for the available money.

Over the past decade, Idaho's gas tax revenues have increased by 15 percent. During that same period, sales tax revenues, an indicator of population and economic activity, have increased by 75 percent.

Idaho Transportation Department District 4 engineer Devin Rigby said in an interview that federal funding for the 25-mile Highway 75 project will probably amount to $24 million by 2009 when current highway bill funding expires. That will pay for design and some right-of-way acquisition, he said.

He said that in five years, Idaho will be spending all its gas tax money on road maintenance.

"Looking at the horizon, it is a very, very bleak picture as far as funding anything in the Wood River Valley," he said.

During a meeting of the Wood River Regional Transportation Committee on Thursday, local transportation advisors proposed an alternative funding solution—tolls.

Though at first suggestion they are probably unpalatable to most drivers, tolls aren't what they used to be, five committee members told local government officials at the Old Blaine County Courthouse.

The committee members made their pitch in a document written primarily by Peter Everett, president of the KART/Peak bus board of directors. Titled "A Rationale for Tolling Highway 75," the document states that modern tollbooths collect money electronically, allowing cars to pass through while barely slowing down. It adds that tolls could be collected only during peak times, when the drivers on the road are the ones who are causing the need for a wider highway.

"Through a variable pricing structure, tolling can be used as an incentive to those travelers choosing to car and van pool, use transit and/or use the road at less busy times," the document states.

In interviews, County Commissioners Tom Bowman and Sarah Michael said they would support tolls only if no other way to fund the improvements could be found.

"When we have gridlock between Hailey and Ketchum, then toll roads will be on the table," Michael said. "Until that happens, I don't think anyone will take it seriously."

She said she would prefer to see paid parking installed in Ketchum as a funding mechanism before tolls are considered.

Bowman said it is possible that Blaine County could raise highway construction money by selling revenue bonds guaranteed by future toll collections.

"If they're not going to give us the money for road improvements, they need to give us the means to do it," Bowman said of the state government

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