Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Making a decision on the road levy

     Chances are you don’t pay too much attention to the condition of the roads and bridges you drive each day, until you see a problem. Maybe that problem is on one of the routes you drive regularly; or maybe you’ve gone somewhere new in the county and wondered why the road is so bad there.

     A measure will be on the ballot in a few days—on May 20—prompting you to vote yes or no whether to raise your own property taxes for two years to help fund road and bridge repair and maintenance throughout Blaine County (including in your city, if you live in a city). The Blaine County Board of Commissioners put this measure on the ballot for you to consider. The purpose of this column is to explain why and help you make a decision how to vote.

     The reason for the ballot measure is fairly simple. All the costs of building and maintaining transportation infrastructure—roads, streets, bridges—have gone up in the past 20 years. The amount of fuel taxes allocated to serving this need has actually declined in this same period. Fuel taxes have not been raised since the mid-1990s; and today, less tax is collected per mile driven. The result is a shortfall in funds needed even to maintain the roads, let alone rebuild them.

     Roads and bridges have a useful life, just like most things. The worse their condition, the harder and more expensive they are to fix. The more miles driven and the heavier the loads, the more wear and tear there is on the facilities. Overall, the average condition of Blaine County roads and bridges is declining. So, we have now a persistent funding shortfall and a gradually deteriorating condition of essential infrastructure.

     This situation is a problem today—all across the country, in fact—and it cannot continue for very long without the condition of our roads, streets and bridges getting worse. Road and bridge maintenance in Blaine County has for years been funded almost exclusively by fuel taxes collected and passed along by the state and federal governments. Some Idaho counties supplement this funding with property taxes, either through a local highway district, or the county government. Blaine County does not. To keep the property-tax burden low, the county has avoided using property taxes to pay for roads, road maintenance has been deferred and reserves have been used.

     Until the state Legislature and/or the U.S. Congress raise fuel taxes, or create some other source of funds—through user fees or taxes, or general funds—the only significant avenue open to Idaho’s counties to get more funding for roads and bridges is property taxes. This is why you have a decision on a special levy May 20. Meanwhile, Blaine County and other communities are lobbying in Boise for change.

     Good roads, streets and bridges are essential for our community’s public safety, social and economic vitality. They are used every day, by all of us to get to work, to school, to sports and recreation, to the doctor—in fact anywhere you want to go. They are used by others—including police, fire and ambulance—to get to you.

     The levy is structured so that funding is shared between the county and all five cities. The county portion will be spent entirely on road and bridge maintenance and repair.

     For details about the levy and how the money will be spent, please visit Click Hot Topics or another road levy button. The interactive Story Map includes maps and pictures. These are your roads and this is your decision.

     Jacob Greenberg, Angenie McCleary and Lawrence Schoen are the three members of the Blaine County Board of Commissioners.

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