Idaho Lawmakers Ponder Gas Tax Increase As Truckers Struggle To Navigate Failing Roads, Bridges

Feb 17, 2015

On Monday, a panel of Idaho lawmakers said the time has come to boost the gas tax to fix roads and bridges that are in disrepair. Father and son truckers Cliff and Rusty Irish have seen the problem first hand.

The Irishes are based in Sagle, Idaho, about 60 miles from the Canadian border. They can rack up as many as 90,000 miles a year transporting logs and equipment across north Idaho. 

Headed north on U.S. 95 on a recent rainy day, they stopped at the Long Bridge, which stretches across Lake Pend Oreille. They parked and made their way under the bridge to see the expansion joints. This is where neoprene pads that sit between the bridge joints have started to squeeze out.

Most vehicles can still go over the bridge just fine. But not big trucks. The state has imposed a weight limit.

Rusty, the son, said he can take heavy loads over the bridge - but only if  he gets a special permit for each trip. So if he needs to take three loads across this bridge in a day he needs three different permits.

It can take several days to obtain a permit and cost a couple hundred dollars.

The Irishes said the state does give them another option. They can spread the weight out by adding more axles to their load. But that can make the truck too big for other roads.

Weight restricted bridges are an issue across Idaho. In fact, truckers carry a color-coded map that warns them of various weight limits.

These restrictions are a hassle, of course, but is it a problem for anyone besides the truckers?

Cliff, the dad, argues time is money and ultimately the delays get passed on to consumers.

"More it costs to get the groceries to the store, the more it costs to bring them home," he said, noting that at a certain point, it's also a matter of safety.

Heading west across the Idaho panhandle toward the Washington border, Rusty motioned up ahead as they approach another smaller bridge.

"You got this big chuck hole at the beginning and then ..." he said, and waited for his passenger to react as a large pothole jostled the vehicle.

"That'n ain't large," Cliff said. “When you can put a Volkswagen in 'em, we got a large one.”

Brian Ness, who directs Idaho's Transportation Department, recently appeared before lawmakers. And he didn't have good news. Ness explained that Idaho roads and bridges are deteriorating faster than the department can repair them. His agency faces a $262 million maintenance shortfall.

Almost 800 bridges in Idaho are considered "structurally deficient."

"We are losing the battle," Ness said.

Republican lawmakers seem to have heard Ness’ cry for funds.

Idaho’s House Transportation and Defense Committee has introduced a $200 million package that would raise the gas tax by 8-cents a gallon, increase the diesel tax by 12 cents and boost vehicle registration fees. Fuel taxes would continue to rise by a penny each year to keep up with inflation.

But what are the chances voters in this conservative state would accept higher taxes at the pump?

Priscilla Salant, a public policy researcher at the University of Idaho, said voters believe Idaho’s infrastructure won’t be adequate in 10 years.

“Our survey results show people really are thinking ahead and they see the need to invest," Salant said.

Back in north Idaho, trucker Cliff Irish said he would support a hike in the fuel tax.

"I just think they oughta make it across the board," he said. "Everybody’s gotta pay it. I mean cripes, there’s people that make half a dozen trips to town a day.”

But only about a third of people in a poll last year favored raising the gas tax. They preferred the idea of raising fees on commercial vehicles -- in other words, asking people like Cliff Irish to pay to keep up roads and bridges.