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Study: Idaho car drivers overpaying for highways

By John Miller

Passenger car drivers pay a disproportionate share of Idaho highway maintenance costs compared with big trucks, according to a study released Tuesday that state leaders predict could become a political “hot potato.”

The study concludes that cars are overpaying by 8 percent, while heavy trucks that do more damage underpay by 14 percent, according to one scenario. In another scenario, the discrepancy is wider, with cars overpaying by 26 percent and trucks underpaying by 27 percent.

The study was completed by consultants from Richland, Wash.-based Battelle for a 15-member task force assembled by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to investigate how to raise money for Idaho roads. It follows a battle in the 2009 Legislature, when Otter failed to convince lawmakers to boost registration fees and the gas tax.

Lt. Gov. Brad Little, the task force chairman, suggested Tuesday that recommendations resulting from the study to recalibrate the funding balance between cars and big trucks could again become the subject of heated debate.

“It looks like a hot potato,” Little said.

A task force subcommittee investigating how highway costs are divvied up will now review the study’s findings into August, before making recommendations to the full panel in about a month.

Already, however, it’s become political fodder.

Keith Allred, Democratic candidate for governor, said the study underscores his contention Otter was wrong in 2009 to attempt to boost truck registrations by 5 percent, while hiking fees for passenger cars significantly more than that.

“Otter puts the special interests who have contributed to his campaigns ahead of the interests of everyday Idahoans,” Allred said in a statement Tuesday.

Otter’s 2009 plan also called for studying whether trucks were paying their fair share.

Jon Hanian, a spokesman for Otter, said the task force is fulfilling the charge the governor gave it.

“This is part of the process, it’s not the end of the process,” Hanian said. “We heard from a number of lawmakers who felt we hadn’t seen enough data to help them make an informed decision. That’s what this process is about.”

The study concludes that passenger car drivers were actually underpaying for roads in 1994, compared with big trucks. But over the last 16 years, that relationship has been reversed, said Patrick Balducci, one of the study’s authors.

There’s a trend toward “more and more overpayment on the part of automobiles and pickup trucks, and more underpayment by combination trucks,” Balducci said. “On average, an 80,000 pound truck is going to do… more damage than lighter vehicles.”

One reason for Idaho’s funding imbalance dates to 2000, when a judge ruled the state’s two-tiered registration system was unconstitutional because it gave agriculture and resource truckers an unfair advantage over out-of-state haulers.

The current system, adopted by lawmakers in 2000 along with a $27 million settlement with the American Trucking Association, charges truckers a flat fee based on a range of miles the trucks run. That’s cost Idaho nearly $12 million annually, the Idaho Transportation Department estimates.

Skip Smyser, an Idaho Trucking Association lobbyist who helped author the new registration system, on Tuesday expressed concern this new study unfairly singles out big trucking firms whose vehicles crisscross the state.

Smyser said he needs to review its conclusions before assembling a response.

The study offers several alternatives for how the Idaho Legislature might remedy the funding imbalance, including boosting the state’s 25 cent per gallon tax on diesel fuel to as much as $1.30 per gallon; increasing heavy truck registrations by a factor of four; and enacting a so-called “vehicle miles traveled fee” for vehicles topping 26,000 pounds.

State Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, is director of the Associated Logging Contractors, whose members include log haulers. She’s long contended some trucks, including those from outside Idaho, don’t pay their fair share. Though Otter’s task force aims to find ways to raise more money for state highways, Keough said Tuesday that should take a back seat to reforming Idaho’s current system.

“My concern is we not embed those inequities into the system,” said Keough, a task force member.

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