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Idaho highway panel finds $543 million in needs

| November 25, 2010 8:00 PM

BOISE (AP) - A state task force on transportation funding has determined Idaho will need to come up with an additional $543 million annually to fully address its needs to maintain highways and bridges.

The 15-member panel finished its work Tuesday at the Idaho Capitol and will submit its final report to Gov. Butch Otter in December. Otter created the panel more than a year ago after state House members in the 2009 Idaho Legislature rejected his plan to raise the gas tax to pay for more upgrades and maintenance.

The panel identified the level of funding necessary to meet transportation needs and compiled a list of more than two dozen policy changes for the governor and lawmakers to raise the revenue required to fully fund highway projects.

"I think we've come up with a road map, I think we've acknowledged how difficult it's going to be," said Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who chaired the task force.

The panel found the state Department of Transportation and local highway districts need $262 million to operate, preserve and restore road systems.

Another $281 million is needed for safety and other improvements, the task force said.

The group also identified more than 24 ways to raise money for roads, putting an increase in the fuel tax and a plan to index the fuel tax to inflation at the top of the list.

While members of the panel noted that each one-penny hike in the fuel tax would raise $8.2 million for roads, they stopped short of making any specific money-raising recommendations.

Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, acknowledged the challenge of reaching consensus among all 15 members of the panel. But he had hoped the panel's work could have provided more detail and direction. He had urged the group to determine how much money each proposal would raise to paint a realistic funding picture for the state.

Lake was the only member to object to the final recommendations.

"My thought was the task force should reach some conclusions," said Lake. "We should have at least given the Legislature some direction."

The task force directed the governor and Idaho lawmakers to explore their ideas after the economy has improved and more revenue available for roads and bridges.

Task force member Gordon Cruickshank, a Valley County Commissioner, said he was reluctant tie funding recommendations to the economic recovery.

"We're basically saying if it doesn't improve, we're not going to do anything," Cruickshank said.

But the task force recommendation means highway funding will most likely be delayed again in the upcoming session by lawmakers who may be reluctant to hike taxes while the economy crawls its way out of the recession.

"I think the problem is a lot bigger than we're willing to fund or the public is willing to fund," said Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, who served on the task force.