Doug Petcash, KTVB-TV
Brian Ness took over as director in January.
After 30 years with the Michigan Department of Transportation, Brian Ness decided it was time to take on a new challenge.
"Being a director of a department is one of 50 jobs in the country. There's only 50 of us, and it seemed like a right fit for me," said ITD Director Brian Ness.
Ness walked in on his first day thinking he'd have time to settle into the new job.
"Before I even got into my office my administrative assistant hands me this piece of paper, and she says today's the opening of the legislature, you have a budget meeting with the governor at 9," said Ness.
It's been non-stop since.
Ness has been meeting with ITD employees around the state. He's setting the tone for his administration and gauging morale.
"They need to see me as a leader of this department outlining what my vision is, where I want this department to go, how they fit into that. The morale is very good. People take a lot of pride in what they do," said Brian Ness.
One of the first big challenges Ness faced happened in March.
ITD fired or suspended 21 employees for what the chair of the House Transportation Committee called "improper use of equipment."
Ness won't comment on any specifics, but did say this.
"I can tell you that that was an internal issue, That I will leave that as an internal issue, that sometimes good people make bad decisions. When they make bad decisions they will be held accountable for those decisions."
Department spokesman Jeff Stratten says the employees' actions were not criminal.
Ness says the biggest challenge facing ITD is money, or lack of it, because of falling revenue. In fiscal year 2010 ITD received 600-million dollars in state and federal money. For 2011it will get 497-million.
One of the key revenue sources is the gas tax.
"Cars are getting more fuel efficient. In many cases people are driving less, so that revenue source continues to decline," Ness said.
The 25-cent per gallon state tax has not been raised since 1996.
Another big money source, state vehicle registration fees, are the same as they were in 1997.
"We design a bridge to last 50 or 60 years in life, and then at that point it should be replaced. Right now with our current funding we can replace those bridges once every 120 years," said ITD Director Brian Ness.
In response to the shrinking funding, ITD reduced equipment purchases, operating budgets and travel. It also eliminated seven vacant positions, left other vacancies open and refocused on road preservation rather than expansion. What that means is that other than the major projects you see going on right now, no new roads will be built.
"Concentrating on the existing infrastructure that's in place. How do we make sure that we keep that functional. How do we make sure we keep that safe," said Brian Ness.
Right now, The Governor's Transportation Task Force is looking for new ways to bring in more money for our roads and bridges.
ITD says the early possibilities include raising the gas tax and registration fees, taxing rental cars, turning to toll roads or implementing a road usage fee. Basically drivers would be taxed for how many miles they drive. Keep in mind, these are all just ideas being talked about.
"Based on the last meeting I went to, it looks like all of the options are still on the table," Ness said.
The legislature and governor will make the final decision on funding.
Meanwhile, Ness has set the bar high for himself and the department's 1,800 employees. He says accountability is key; to the legislature and the people of Idaho whom he calls customers.
"We should not ask the taxpayers for one additional penny of increase in revenue until they can be assured that we are spending the money that we have wisely," said ITD Director Brian Ness.
And Ness has set a very high goal.
"To be the best transportation department in the country."
Time will tell, but he's already laying the groundwork.
Director Ness stresses that critical operations such as snowplowing and maintenance are not being reduced. The Governor's Transportation Task Force is expected to report its findings and funding suggestions near the end of this year.