COTTONWOOD – Sections of road would not receive snow plowing or dust abatement, preventative maintenance would decrease, employees would lose hours or even jobs.
What does the future hold for Idaho County’s roads and highway districts with the failure to reauthorize federal Secure Rural Schools (SRS) funding, which last year injected $7.017 million into the local infrastructure?
To more than 65 people, representing regional highway districts at a Saturday meeting in Cottonwood, Idaho County Commissioner Mark Frei asked, “What does survival mode look like?” and a voice rang out from the crowd:
“Get used to gravel.”
Yet even if SRS does get another chance with Congressional efforts currently under way, local officials were in agreement that this year-to-year funding uncertainty is intolerable, that no one option will solve this crisis but that more revenue-generation options from local to federal levels need to be brought to bear.
“It’s hard to run a business with these one-year commits,” said Mike Duclos, Ferdinand Highway District, which is responsible for 72 miles of road and has seen SRS funds drop from $391,947 in 2009 to $258,308 last year. With no SRS, the projection is a nearly 50 percent decrease for its 2015 budget that would drop its funding per mile from $6,685.99 last year to $3,353.81 this year.
Another district representative spoke that loss of SRS funds could mean the elimination of two jobs, sections of roads without snow removal, and no preventative maintenance of any kind.
“What we need is a proactive approach, looking two to three years down the road,” Duclos said, “and get this in place before we lose funding and we’re in a recovery effort.”
SRS payments are authorized by Congress to provide stable funding to schools and roads in rural counties, largely comprised of public lands, impacted by declines in timber harvests.
Right now, SRS reauthorization is poised to be the first bill out of the resource committee, said Scott Carlton, regional director for U.S. Representative Raul Labrador, an effort fully backed by the Idaho Congressional Delegation, he added. While not a guarantee, funding could be approved within the next 30 to 60 days, possibly at 80 percent of current levels.
“This is something that’s a high priority for us,” he said. “But also understand that we’re working on other options to replace funding.”
Carlton echoed the sentiment of several speakers that part of the funding solution is improving extraction of natural resources, also understanding that even with this option it may not be enough to replace SRS.
As it is now, highway district representatives said the existing maintenance load runs operations lean as they cope with decreasing funds and rising costs. Patrons expect a level of service, and demand more above that. Mac McBoyle, Grangeville Highway District, said the situation is only going to get worse, warning that preventative maintenance not conducted now will cost more to fix it later on.
“I don’t even know what a surplus is,” said Rob Simon, Clearwater County Road and Bridge Department supervisor, whose jurisdiction recently deal with $5 million in repairing slide damage and who hasn’t purchased new equipment in more than six years. McBoyle noted his district faces a Highway 7 project that may lead into the millions of dollars.
“How do you save up for something like that?” he said.
The state situation is not much better, according to Dist. 6 Representative Dan Rudolph, with Idaho being $263 million behind in transportation infrastructure maintenance, which includes in the Idaho Transportation Department’s District 2 region approximately 100 deficient bridges. For a grasp on the funding situation, he said adding a penny to the gas tax would generate only $9 million annually, so other alternative forms funding are needed.
Part of the morning’s discussion took a side trail into the grudging acceptance of raising taxes, with support for both gas and registration fee hikes. John Allen, Clearwater County commissioner, said that while the federal government may owe counties for the costs associated with public lands, “I’m not going to hold my breath they’re going to solve this for us,” noting the need for more self-sufficiency funding options. He also agreed with statements by both Carlton and Rudolph that the districts and rural communities need to tell their stories to educate those in urban areas they have a responsibility – such as through SRS — to pay for public lands.
“We’re not taking welfare,” Allen said, and for example noted his county’s maintenance on the Mussleshell Road provides that area’s only access to national forest lands. “We’re saying that you need to pay your fair share for your use of these roads.”
One man commented the problem is counties became dependent on SRS funds for so many years and have taken on new roads for maintenance, “and now we have an infrastructure our tax base can’t support…. We’ve overbuilt our infrastructure, and we can no longer maintain that without that federal money.” He also called for districts to become more self-sufficient and supported a state gas tax increase.
Carlton agreed on the need for more revenue sources, but when talking about raising tax revenues, he continued, “We as a society need to look at what we fund and what our priorities are. We’re $18 trillion in debt, and we keep funding programs.”
“The problem is access to our natural resources,” said Idaho County Commission chair Jim Chmelik. Raising taxes fixes shortfalls in the short term but maybe not the problem overall. “We need to put people back to work. Natural resources funded our roads in the past, it can fund it in the future.”
Saturday’s informational meeting was organized by the West Transportation Planning Council, organized 12 years ago, and representing the cities of Ferdinand and Cottonwood, and the Cottonwood, Ferdinand, Keuterville, Fenn and Greencreek highway districts.