By Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter
There’s been lots of talk lately about our cooling economy and its impact on the state budget. Some legislators are even talking about delaying a serious investment in addressing our mounting backlog of highway work. “Too expensive,” they say. “Better wait ‘til times get better.”
Let me provide some perspective so we don’t miss the big picture.
Simply put, the cost of addressing our transportation infrastructure needs is growing daily. Putting it off will cost us hundreds of millions of dollars more in years to come. What’s more, putting it off means ignoring the lives, air quality and economic opportunities at risk unless we make our highways and bridges safer and more efficient now.
It was encouraging to see in a recent poll that most folks agree. Two-thirds of the people asked throughout Idaho said the Legislature should raise the money needed to maintain and improve our roads and bridges. And a solid majority favors increasing vehicle registration fees for the work, while 72 percent agree with me that raising the state gas tax is not the answer.
The sentiment is as clear as the need is compelling. Yet some want to continue wringing our hands, studying the issue to distraction and waiting for the next economic upturn before committing to do what we should have been doing all along – what anyone with a home or a business does as a matter of course. We must take care of what we need to protect our lives and our livelihoods.
Years of putting off needed maintenance and repairs already has left us nearly a quarter BILLION dollars a year behind. That deficit is growing every day as highways and bridges keep deteriorating, traffic congestion increases and rising global competition sends the cost of oil, gravel, asphalt, concrete and other construction materials spiraling.
We can’t let our own shortcomings become the excuse for inaction. The Idaho Transportation Department should operate more efficiently, and it will. Our statewide priorities must be determined more professionally, and they will. Most importantly, we must commit ourselves to a long-term, sustained solution that addresses today’s needs and anticipates tomorrow’s.
That will require marshaling and leveraging our resources in ways that best reflect how and by whom our highway system is used. It also will mean responsibly using tools like GARVEE bonds to secure today’s prices for some of our largest and costliest projects. And it will mean refusing to be distracted by bumps in the road – economic or political.
Anyone who tries saving for retirement knows the key is putting away a relatively small amount at a time consistently over the years, resisting the urge to wait for your ship to come in or a get-rich-quick scheme to appear. Failing to do that makes the need so great by the time you approach retirement that it seems insurmountable.
The same is true for our transportation infrastructure. We have been procrastinating, meaning to get back on track for years but always finding something else more immediate, more pressing, more achievable. Our intentions were good, but we all know where we risk winding up when we travel a road paved with good intentions, right?
The Legislature is considering a number of proposals to begin turning things around. Unfortunately, we have a lot of ground to make up, and there is considerable resistance to change. My sense – backed up by many of you – is that Idahoans are ready to make measured, responsible, consistent investments in a safer, cleaner, more efficient transportation future.
So as I told legislators as they started this year’s session: Let’s get to work!
The above content reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the policies of the National Governors Association.