Breakfast Series report: Idaho on the move, transportation trends

IBR Staff//August 21, 2020

Breakfast Series report: Idaho on the move, transportation trends

IBR Staff//August 21, 2020

photo of boise traffic
Traffic in Boise has picked up steadily as the population has boomed in recent years. File photo

Earlier this month, the Idaho Policy Institute, a non-partisan research organization at Boise State University, released a study that outlines the state’s transportation needs and how much they will cost. Its unequivocal message: Idaho must raise new revenue now to preserve its transportation network, especially its roads.

On Aug. 4, the Idaho Business Review held a virtual Breakfast Series discussion that took a deep dive into the study’s findings.

In simple dollars and cents, the state’s transportation balance sheet is concerning.

Since 2015, revenue enhancements have contributed upwards of $130 million annually to the maintenance of Idaho’s transportation systems. However, the state needs an additional $236.5 million per year in revenue to just maintain that system at the state and local level. On top of that, an additional $5.3 million per year is needed to maintain existing transit equipment and infrastructure. These amounts do not include the costs of replacing any minor or capital equipment, nor does it include any not-yet-funded expansions of the state’s road, bridge, bike, pedestrian and transit infrastructure.

The invisible consequences of deferring this annual additional cost of $241.8 million include an estimated $427 per year out of every Idaho motorist’s personal pocket for vehicle repair due to deteriorating roads. They also include the potential failure of the 239 Idaho bridges longer than 20 feet that are already in poor condition. The bottom line: Idaho has an immediate need to close the $241.8 million funding gap just to simply maintain the transportation system the state already has in place, excluding the costs of maintaining the equipment and facilities needed to do so.

Idaho is not alone in its need to look at transportation infrastructure maintenance problems. A July 16 article from USA Today states: “Nationwide, 21.8% of roads are in poor condition, 7.6% of bridges are in need of replacement or repair, and there have been 4.8 derailments for every 100 miles of train track from 2015 to 2019, the most common cause of which are broken rails or welds. In some states, these figures are far worse, indicating a threat to not only the economy, but to public health and safety as well.”

The Breakfast Series panel

photo of vanessa crossgrove fry
Vanessa Crossgrove Fry

Vanessa Crossgrove Fry, interim director, Idaho Policy Institute, Boise State University, also serves as an adjunct faculty member at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Fry has focused both her work and education on using multi-sector, evidenced-based solutions to address persistent social, environmental and economic issues. At IPI, Fry has led projects focusing on a number of issues including education, workforce development, housing and homelessness. She has also served as the lead researcher on multiple projects addressing Idaho’s transportation infrastructure. Fry holds a B.A. in biology and fine art from Wittenberg University, an MBA from Presidio Graduate School and a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration from Boise State University.

photo of laila kral
Laila Kral

Laila Kral, deputy administrator, Local Highway Technical Assistance Council, grew up in Troy, Idaho, before moving to Boise to attend college. She graduated from Boise State University with a degree in civil engineering. She worked in the private industry for close to 10 years before joining the Local Highway Technical Assistance Council. She is currently the deputy administrator while also managing the T2 Training Center and several grant programs.

photo of mollie mccarty
Mollie McCarty

Mollie McCarty, Office of Governmental Affairs manager, Idaho Transportation Department, took on her current role in 2008. She had previously worked at ITD since 1998 as a member of the communications office staff where she was the primary spokesman for District 3 on southwest Idaho projects, including the expansion of I-84 in the Treasure Valley. In 2009, McCarty began ITD’s coordination of the Governor’s Task Force on Modernizing Transportation Funding in Idaho. Before coming to ITD, she managed public relations projects at Elgin Syferd Drake, now Drake Cooper. She also worked in television news broadcasting for 10 years. Her last seven years were in Boise at CBS affiliate KBOI-TV. McCarty holds a degree in communications from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma with a broadcast emphasis.

photo of lantz mcginnis-brown
Lantz McGinnis-Brown

Lantz McGinnis-Brown, research associate, Idaho Policy Institute has a master’s degree in public administration, a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in public policy and administration. His research interests include nonprofit and local government policy, administration and management, research methodologies, public accountability and pretty much everything else related to applied policy and administration research.

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Gabe Osterhout

Gabe Osterhout, research associate, Idaho Policy Institute, has conducted policy research on a diverse set of state and local issues, including transportation, education, health care, energy, military retirees, city planning, and census participation. At IPI, he is passionate about helping community leaders make evidence-based decisions. Osterhout holds a bachelor’s degree in political economy from The College of Idaho and a master’s from King’s College London. He also teaches a political science course in the School of Public Service. Osterhout holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest time to identify all national flags.

photo of carsten peterson
Carsten Peterson

Moderator: Carsten Peterson, partner, Hawley Troxell, has a civil litigation practice that includes personal injury, medical malpractice claims, insurance coverage, uninsured and underinsured motorist claims, insurance bad faith, employment discrimination, wrongful termination, employment wage disputes and transportation liability. Peterson is admitted to practice law in Idaho and Utah in both state and federal courts, with substantial experience in handling litigation in federal courts. He regularly practices throughout Idaho and Utah. In addition, Peterson advises clients in matters involving disputes with the Idaho Department of Labor and Idaho Industrial Commission. His experience also includes advising clients in business formations, purchases and risk management.

Below are a few questions and answers from the event. To view a complete replay of the event, go to the Idaho Business Review website at https://idahobusinessreview.com/breakfast-series/. 

How does Idaho’s transportation infrastructure compare to other states? Where do we stand?

“The American Society of Civil Engineers, they give letter grades to every state. For Idaho, they gave the road system a C-. For state highways, it was a C. Now I haven’t had a chance to go through and look at every individual letter grade for every state that they looked at, but I can say that the national infrastructure report that they gave was a D. So on that front, we are looking better than the national number. Our bridge rating from the ASC is a D. National is a C+. Again, I think a lot of states are dealing with these issues. It’s not like we are necessarily doing so much worse than other states. And then not just looking a road and bridges, like Vanessa touched on, but also looking at bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, which people haven’t looked at a whole lot in the state, and public transportation. Bike/ped infrastructure, we are 33rd, according to the League of American Bicyclists and spinning per capita, we’re 43rd — 33rd in the second half, but punching above our weight when you consider how little we spend on it.”

– Gabe Osterhout

The West Bridge Street Bridge in Blackfoot
The West Bridge Street Bridge in Blackfoot. Photo by Catie Clark

Bridges were mentioned. What particular bridges in the state need repair? Can you give us any idea where those are?

“The worst bridges, the bridges that need the most attention, have made it onto our federal program. However, the local system bridge funding is about $12 million a year, and that’s not a lot of money to build too many bridges. With that, we do have a map on our website, and I will drop the link in the chat so anyone can go look at it. The date was updated on the map — it’s 2018 data, which means we updated it in 2019, and it shows some conditions on bridges both at the state and local level. So it will say which bridges are posted for load, which means restricted for different sizes of vehicles or closed to traffic, and that data comes straight from ITD, who is responsible for monitoring and inspecting all the bridges on the federal highway system or on the local and state system. So I’ll drop that in and you can see one number that both Director Brian Ness of ITD and have LHTAC (Local Highway Technical Assistance Council) repeated quite frequently is that in the next five years, about 50% of the bridges in the state will be 50 years old or older. And that is the average design life of bridges, especially built, you know, 50 years ago. So it is a looming crisis, the bridge condition in both the state and local system.”

– Laila Kral

photo of eighth street renovation
New irrigation systems and tree grates installed on Eighth Street in downtown Boise. Photo by Teya Vitu

We are still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Has that disrupted construction? 

“We have been looking very carefully at the volumes to try to anticipate as best we can, how this is going to impact our revenues. We’ve talked about that quite a bit with the local jurisdictions. You know, we’re all challenged right now because we’re prepared for — we’ve had losses or revenue and we’re prepared for additional losses of revenue, but at the same time, one of the interesting things that we are looking at is trying to be prepared to immediately hit the gas, so to speak, if we do get additional funding, because you know policymakers, both at the national level and at our state level, they are well aware that when you have an economic challenge, sometimes one of the best prescriptions for that is to invest in transportation. You know it gets the economy fueled, it gets people working, and when that expenditure is over, the public has infrastructure that they need. Anyway, so it’s often considered to be a very desirable way to go.

And so you know, it’s just been really interesting for us. We kind of talk about having one foot on the brake and one foot on the gas because we always have to be ready to either deal with reductions or increases. It’s difficult to plan for, but that’s what we’re facing. In addition, you know, we’re looking at the federal transportation bill, which is set to expire. So that’s another element that, you know, is an unknown. But I can tell you that as we’ve been looking at the traffic volumes in the state, with the pandemic, we saw, you know, the worst of it when we had the shutdown. We were getting above a 30% reduction in traffic. You know, and everybody was kind of looking around and seeing that there were just no cars out on the roads. It was an eerie experience, I think, for all of us that we remember. Then we saw a real surge when it opened up. I think people were just really stir-crazy and dying to get out and do something. And we saw that in our volumes. Now we’re just kind of leveling off. When we compare what we’re seeing in our weekly volumes, I’m looking at the graphs right now, it’s around a 6% to 7% reduction of what we’re accustomed to.

So the big question mark that we’re wondering is, how is the pandemic going to continue? We get a lot of demand for that, and we honestly don’t know the answer. We find out about two months after fuel taxes are paid and fuel is consumed. About two months later is when we see, working with the Tax Commission, we see the revenues come in. So we’re just looking at that anticipating and quite frankly, we just don’t know what the future holds in terms of some revenue reductions at both the state and federal levels.”

– Mollie McCarty

What are some ways we could pay for all the infrastructure improvements that the state needs? 

“An important aspect is diversification. If you look at any state that heavily relies on one source of revenue, take Alaska with its heavy reliance on oil, for example, the potential disadvantages of that one revenue source become much more threatening. So it’s important to consider, not just the advantages and disadvantages of one policy alternative but the way that they interact as a whole to spread out the threat in case of some kind of economic change. Case in point, gas tax for a long time has been a fairly stable source of revenue, but as fuel consumption and gas mileage per gallon decrease, it’s becoming less and less able to keep up with inflation. That’s why Idaho is now in a position to look for other sources of revenue.”

– Lantz McGinnis-Brown

photo of downtown twin falls
Downtown Twin Falls. Photo by Liz Patterson Harbauer

What impact, if any, has our transportation infrastructure had on businesses being willing to come here and do business?

“Before I was at Boise State, I was part of helping write a prospectus down in Twin Falls. It’s a huge economic development and a couple of big companies ended up coming down there, one is Chobani and the other one was Clif. In some of the questions that were on the prospectus that we were filling out, and I at the time didn’t know what the companies were, but I provide a lot of information on transportation because I was working in the sector at that point in time. They were really wanting to know that investment was being made in the transportation infrastructure system down in that area. So that’s more anecdotal. I bet Laila and Mollie have more specifics, but that’s certainly something that industry is looking at when they’re considering coming to the state. In the case of Clif Bar, they were particularly interested in opportunity to expand public transportation down there.”

– Vanessa Crossgrove Fry