Friday, August 20, 2010

AAA to task force: Take the high road


A difficult job just got tougher for Gov. Butch Otter's 15-member transportation funding task force. Challenged with finding workable ways to pay for Idaho's crumbling roads and bridges in a down economy, the group has been advised the equity gap between what cars and trucks pay is widening.

The task force has several options: It can incorporate the results from the new $200,000 ITD cost allocation study in its December recommendations to the governor, discredit the study to appease the trucking lobby, or throw in the towel to avoid addressing the issue altogether.

Everyone who drives on Idaho roads benefits from them and should pay for their upkeep consistent with that use. But segments of the trucking industry have been getting a pass for years, according to the new study.

When Otter proposed registration fee hikes ranging between 75 and 179 percent for cars and light trucks two years ago—compared to just 5 percent for heavy trucks—AAA testified in opposition. We supported the governor's action to improve funding, but not excessively on car owners' backs.

Our contention on the equity issue was supported by evidence from a 2004 University of Idaho study commissioned by ITD. It confirmed truck tax collections tanked following the 2000 repeal of the weight distance tax. The Legislature's enactment of a new registration structure for trucks introduced new problems and inequities, including a multi-million-dollar drop in collections.

AAA also cited a 2007 study that showed combination trucks were underpaying their share of highway fees and taxes by 19 percent and cars were overpaying by 21 percent. Some didn't like those results, and the study was scrapped. Unfortunately, the breach is even wider.

It's worse still when all state and federal programs are considered. Collections from cars exceed costs by 47 percent, while payments from combination trucks fall 33 percent short.

Authors of the new study presented seven scenarios to demonstrate how equity shares would be affected by various changes in user fees and taxes. One shows that a 5-cent increase in the state's gas tax would need to be offset by a $1.30 increase in diesel taxes for trucks to equalize equity ratios.

Another shows that equity between light and heavy trucks could be equalized somewhat by raising registration fees by 10 percent for cars and by a factor of 4.07 for trucks. Even so, the big rigs would underpay as much as 45 percent.

Watch for someone to discredit the study without reading it or knowing what it is. The evidence shows Idaho is simply reaping the rewards for its earlier actions.

The new study doesn't express needs, but it shows what we're doing with what we have. In short, Idaho's user fees—the ones that fund our roads—do not account for the real impacts of trucks, especially the heavier ones. Let's say the task force determines we'll need an additional $250 million annually to address Idaho's funding shortfalls. The policy cannot depend on giving trucks a pass. That's why our roads are failing in the first place.

Let's consider what we pay based on how many miles we drive, rather than arbitrary considerations like the age of our vehicles. And if the gas and special fuels taxes aren't working, let's find a way to calculate contributions based on the size and weight of our vehicles. Let's consider the successful models from other states.

We all need to contribute, but it's clear the trucking industry must play catch-up if the governor is truly serious about addressing this problem.

Dave Carlson is director of public and government affairs for AAA Idaho.

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