Thursday, October 16, 2008

$ for Idaho Roads

(Hat tip to the Boise Guardian, for posting a condensed version of this for his large and smart audience. Thanks, Dave!)

Idaho's roads are in some serious need of serious road work.

The Idaho Transportation Department estimates that it would cost an additional $250 million per year, just to maintain the status quo. Of course, to bring things into "ship shape" would cost in the billions... we're almost talking CONGRESSIONAL dollar figures! (Boy howdy! Can those kids spend taxpayer dollars?!!)

Many of us are skeptical. We tend to have a myopic viewpoint. (For you non-library types, that's "nearsighted.") "Aw, c'mon! The roads aren't so bad! I drive on the Connecter and 13th Street every day, and there's hardly even a pothole!" To us, the roads look fine... until a bridge falls into the river, like happened back there in Minnesota.

Enter Governor C. L. "Butch" Otter.

(Remember Congressman Butch Otter? The fearless, libertarian-leaning advocate of the downtrodden taxpayer? Heir apparent to Steve "take a bite out of government" Symms? Amazingly, it's the very same guy. Only nowadays, he's busy at work trying to find more money for his beloved state government.)

Governor Otter wants $250 million more, per year, for roads. And when he looks at the hardworking, roadway-using citizens, he sees dollar signs and hears "ka-ching! ka-ching!"

Simply put, he's trying to figure out some way to get more dollars out of those taxpayers' bank accounts, and into the ITD bank account.

(Meanwhile, most of us are powerlessly watching those bank accounts dry up, as the fruits of our lives' work go swirling into the Wall Street sewer grate. But that's a whole 'nother subject.)

The first idea Governor Otter floated (during the '08 Legislative session) was of drastically increasing vehicle registration fees. The reception was lukewarm... about the temperature of liquid nitrogen, as I recall.

Now he's talking about a "mileage tax." It would be simple. Read the odometer each time the car is registered, and collect dollars based on miles-driven since last time.

He's obviously thinking anything is better than raising the fuel tax!

Let's take a look at the options.

Now you're sayin', "What do you know? You're a bikeboy!"

Granted, most of my local transportation is atop my trusty 2-wheeler. But consider... perhaps that gives me a more objective viepoint than Citizen Motorist, or even Butch! (Obviously, I expect somebody to poke holes in my observations. I'm just throwin' 'em out for people to chew on.)


A substantially-increased, revenue-enhancing registration fee sounds fair, doesn't it? (A variation would be a fee based on the weight of the vehicle - after all, a 6000-pound Hummer is gonna bust up the roads way more than that 1900-pound Geo Metro. My Senator - Werk - likes that idea.)

But wait! Not so fast!

If that 1900-pound Geo Metro is driven 20,000 miles a year on Idaho roads, and the Hummer is driven 200 ... who's bustin' up the roads now?

Here's a more commonplace scenario.

Beavis has a 1992 Ford F-150. He drives it back and forth between his house in Kuna and his job in east Boise - puts 20,000 miles on it in a year.

Next door lives - you guessed it - Butthead. He has a pickup just like his neighbor's, only with some sweet rims he got at Les Schwab. And, he puts 2000 miles a year on it, doing a couple dump-runs and a few fishing and hunting trips. (He's got a more "sensible" vehicle that he drives to work in... and pays registration on.)

Just to make the math easy, let's say Butch charges 'em $200/year to register that truck.

Turns out Beavis would be paying one cent per mile, and Butthead ten cents, for the privilege of being registered. (Butthead isn't gonna like this!)

Also, it should be noted that the "foreigners" who visit Idaho from California and other places, are not sharing in the registration-fee revenue scenario.


This seems a little more fair for Beavis and Butthead, huh? If Butch collects five cents per mile, Beavis pays $1000 (ouch!) and Butthead pays $100. (Beavis isn't gonna like this!)

On the surface, it seems more fair than the flat-registration fee. At least it's kinda sorta based on the amount of wear-and-tear the taxpayer is inflicting on the roads.

But... how about the guy who lives in Post Falls but does 90% of his driving in Washington? Should he pay the five cents, too?

Can of worms!

A variation that's being tested next door in Oregon is a GPS-based scheme. A GPS receiver installed in the car keeps track of miles driven.

[If you're asking, "What's GPS"? Here's a quick primer. GPS stands for "global positioning system." There are satellites up there in space, beaming signals back to the earth. A receiver that's mounted in a vehicle, or boat, or missile, or even hand-held, can receive those signals and calculate the exact spot where you're standing, or driving, or flying, what direction you're going and how fast, etc.]

Shades of "Big Brother," huh? That's why most people don't like it - in these parts, we don't like the government keeping such close track of us.

But get used to the notion... long-term, I bet we'll see more of this. If you wanted to get sophisticated, you could keep track of the miles driven in Idaho, and outside the state boundaries. You could even get fancier. For example, you might charge people 10 cents per mile if they're contributing to the I-84 rush-hour traffic jam, but only 5 cents per mile in the off-hours, or if they're driving down Franklin Road. Heck! You could even penalize people who are exceeding the speed limit, by taxing them more! (I'm not saying any of this is good or bad... just describing possible scenarios.)

A mileage-based tax would encourage an underground industry that specializes in odometer tweakage, GPS file hacking, etc. I'm just sayin'. And like the registration fee, a per-mile tax would exclude the despised Californians. And the tolerated Oregonians, Utahns, etc. (Tourism is a growing and desirable industry. I don't know what share of the roadbuilding and upkeep fees should be shared with our tourists... but it should be part of the discussion.)


Nobody (except maybe for the followers of Pope Algore) wants to see higher gas prices. It would be a brave politician indeed, who would advocate for 20 cents more per gallon, when gas is already four bucks.

But compared with the plans that Butch has proposed so far, it seems more equitable.
- The guy in the Hummer will pay more per mile, than the guy in the Geo Metro.
- The guy who drives 20,000 miles will pay more than the guy who drives 2000 miles.
- We also include the tourists, at least the tourists who are driving (and thus putting wear and tear on our roads).

Plus, it's easily collected.

Opponents point out that as people drive more fuel-efficient vehicles, revenues will drop.

What's the alternative? Should gas misers be punished, or taxed at a higher rate than gas guzzlers? As a general rule, the better fuel mileage a car gets, the less wear-and-tear it's likely to put on the road, because of lighter weight. (There are exceptions, and will be more if we evolve towards non-internal-combustion vehicles, etc. And maybe a new revenue method needs to be implemented for non-traditional vehicles... I don't know.)

Another consideration is border areas. Gas merchants who are just barely in Idaho could suffer, if the guys two blocks away in Oregon or Washington are selling gas for 20 cents less. (But those Oregon and Washington guys are more likely to raise their prices by 15 cents, and pad their own pockets a little more.)

There is not, and never will be, a revenue-collecting method that's fair for everybody. There are disadvantages to any of 'em. But if we need a big influx of cash... from this observer's viewpoint, as unpalatable as it may be, the gas tax seems like the most fair and easy way to collect from the actual roadway users. Substantially more so than either a registration tax or an odometer tax. And the Libertarians should take Butch's membership card away for even suggesting those other ideas!


Blogger johnbdiver said...

Good article! I have noticed that the majority of highway damage (both Interstate and State Highways) seems to be in the form of ruts formed by the dual tires of large trucks. Nowhere in the discussion of highway funding have I seen ANY discussion of raising truck registration rates or diesel taxes. The costs for trucks (both intrastate and interstate) seem to be hard for me to discover. I would think that a tractor pulling triples (3 trailers) causes many, many times the damage per mile or per year than a Prius, or a Hummer does. Idaho seems to bend over backward to transfer any costs from businesses to individuals. Is this the case on our highways??

4:27 PM  

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