GRANGEVILLE — Technological change may eventually drive the Idaho legislature to rewrite the state funding formula which portions the money raised by the fuel tax and motor vehicle fees out to road and bridge authorities such as the Idaho Department of Transportation, counties, cities and highway districts. But in recent years, the legislature has taken steps in a different direction: sending general fund dollars – which include state income tax dollars – not only to ITD, but also the local highway jurisdictions.

When the legislature modified the so-called “surplus eliminator” last year, the paperwork included a fatal error, and more than $27 million the legislature meant to dedicate to roads sat idle for a year.

That error was corrected earlier this month, on a motion by District 7 Sen. Carl Crabtree (R-Grangeville), who sits on JFAC (the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee), the legislative body that directs state government spending.

Crabtree told the Free Press Tuesday, Jan. 23, the “surplus eliminator” may include substantially more money next year and said the portion for local districts – administered through LHTAC’s Local Strategic Initiatives Program – may be renewed.

But it appears none of the local highway jurisdictions in Idaho County – including the county’s own road and bridge department – applied ahead of the Dec. 17, 2017, deadline for this year’s money.

The “surplus eliminator” has pushed money to ITD since 2015, and last year’s attempt to route a portion of the money to local roads failed due to a misplaced digit in the law’s emergency clause, which failed to reference the section on local funding. That section included the legislature’s direction that 60 percent of the money would flow to the Idaho Transportation Department and 40 percent (about $11 million of approximately $27-$28 million) would go to local highway jurisdictions.

The application process is administered by LHTAC, the Local Highway Technical Assistance Council, which is expected to notify applicants of award this month – if the legislature approves the funding.

“To have a shovel-ready job, we’ve got to spend $20-$30,000 on engineering and we’ve been focused on those FEMA emergency situations, which is taking all the time and energy,” Idaho County Commission chairman Skip Brandt said. “Then it’s a matter of whether we spend money we don’t have – because we lost SRS – and put it toward projects to have shovel-ready for funding that might not be there.”

"Given the deadlines, that the funds needed to go to a specific project, having rights of way and plans approved...most of my highway districts did not have projects which were ready to apply this round," Joe Forsmann, clerk of five of the 12 highway districts in Idaho County, told the Free Press Tuesday, Jan. 23.

While JFAC has advanced the “surplus eliminator” with a do-pass recommendation, it still faces votes in legislature.

While the bulk of the $27 million would go to ITD, adding in the $11 million for the new “surplus eliminator” line item would nearly triple the size of LHTAC’s budget.

LHTAC deputy administrator Laila Kral told the Free Press: “LHTAC focused on advertising the new program and educating jurisdictions across the state on the program, guidelines and application process. This included post cards mailed out to every jurisdiction, a workshop held in Cottonwood and 10 other locations, presentations at the Idaho Association of Highway Districts convention and other association meetings, and through numerous e-mails. Many successful local highway jurisdictions like these in Idaho County were busy recovering from the rough winter and spring of 2017. Some jurisdictions have chosen to wait until the next application cycle to apply for projects through the Local Strategic Initiatives Program in the hope they have more time and resources to dedicate to the application.”

The City of Moscow applied for a pavement preservation project, the Lewiston Tribune reported Tuesday, Jan. 23, for which it could receive nearly $478,000. Moscow’s project ranks ninth among 80 LHTAC has evaluated so far, which total more than $52 million. Other high-scoring applications include Glenns Ferry’s ($278,000), Post Falls Highway District’s ($1 million), American Falls’s ($1 million), Blackfoot’s ($442,000), Nampa’s ($1 million), Driggs’ ($200,000), New Plymouth’s ($110,000), Oakley’s ($976,000) and Hagerman Highway District’s ($710,000). The Tribune reported more than 150 applications were filed, with only a fraction of the 288 counties, cities and highway districts across the state having filed.

Gains in fuel efficiency, the rise of electric vehicles and higher load limits are allowing Idaho drivers to cover their miles – and exert their wear-and-tear on roads – while paying substantially less in fuel taxes, undermining the existing user-fee model by which the state pays for roads. And while the “surplus eliminator” may help make up the difference in the short term, Crabtree told the Free Press this funding is boom-or-bust – available when the economy surges, but likely not during a downturn.

“We’ve got to get a different structure if we’re going to maintain roads,” he told the Free Press. “All of our commodities in north Idaho leave north Idaho on roads. … The idea that we’re going to let our roads turn to gravel, or some sort of a mudhole, that’s not going to happen.”

Asked why the state hasn’t tapped the general fund for roads before, Crabtree said: “There’s a feeling by the governor and the powers that be down here that user fees should be used rather than the general fund. And I’m not saying that’s wrong. I’m saying the way we’ve been doing it is not going to continue to work without taking out of the general fund. I’m not saying we should, but until we get a better plan, we probably have to.”

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