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House, Senate Pass $250 Million ’Connecting Idaho’ Plan

Mon April 16, 2007 - West Edition
Shannon Dininny - ASSOCIATED PRESS

BOISE, Idaho (AP) The Legislature passed a $250 million installment for the “Connecting Idaho” roads plan on March 30, allowing lawmakers to go home after the controversial project delayed the end of the session for a week.

House lawmakers voted 48-17 in favor of the bond sale to pay for six projects in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The Senate followed with a 27-7 vote, and both chambers adjourned the 2007 session.

For a third year, this plan to finance improvements to state highways with bond sales delayed the end of the session.

The plan calls for spending the money on projects stretching from southeastern Idaho to the state’s northern reaches. Advocates said the compromise hammered out March 30 allayed their concerns that politics was determining which projects received money and how much.

“We were at an impasse because we were at a point where politics was deciding the projects and the amount of money,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “This bill solves that.”

Former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne proposed Connecting Idaho in 2005, arguing that selling bonds to finance the state’s biggest road construction project would help avoid inflation. Going into debt would let work begin quickly, he said, while boosting jobs and avoiding escalating costs of asphalt, concrete and labor.

Lawmakers said selling bonds to finance road construction was just a temporary fix. Eventually, tax and fee increases will have to be considered to keep up with demands, lawmakers said.

“For too long, we have not aggressively addressed our revenue stream,” said Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls.

The new “Connecting Idaho” proposal was at least the third plan to be considered by lawmakers in one week alone.

It calls for selling bonds worth $250 million to build, repair and expand roads and bridges in the coming year.

Opponents of the plan said it would wind up costing Idaho’s children money, in the form of debt payments to be completed over the next 20 years.

“It looks to me like my grandson is going to help pay for this,” said Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries. “We should be looking out for the posterity of our children, not putting them into debt.”

Just how to divvy up the money had been a sticking point between the House and Senate.

Under the bill that finally passed, the Legislature specified the six projects to be funded this year, but the Idaho Transportation Board will decide how to distribute the money.

Beginning next year, the board will have sole authority both for allocating future money and choosing the projects.

U.S. Interstate 84 between Caldwell and Meridian in southwestern Idaho could receive between $58 million and $126 million; Interstate 84 in Boise would get between $28 million and $30 million; and work on State Highway 16 between Interstate 84 and Emmett would get between $4.3 million and $17 million.

Meanwhile, in northern Idaho, U.S. Highway 95 between Garwood and Sagle could get from $23 million to $77 million; Highway 95 near Worley in Kootenai County would be between $11 million and $12 million.

And in eastern Idaho, a project on U.S. Highway 30 to build Topaz and Portneuf River bridges and 2.6 mi. (4.2 km) of four-lane highway would get between $38 million and $40 million.

State highway officials won’t be allowed to expand these projects.

The Senate had rejected a $246 million proposal, forcing a session March 30 to resolve the final stumbling block to adjournment. Some senators said they didn’t trust House lawmakers from near Boise, whom they suspect of trying to get more money for projects in the booming Treasure Valley.

House lawmakers said they didn’t trust the roads department and wanted specific amounts given to each of six projects around the state.

The program has been a bone of contention ever since its introduction, when conservative lawmakers objected, saying that it departed from Idaho’s traditional “pay-as-you-go” system of building and improving roads.

Kempthorne vetoed a handful of bills in 2005 to get it passed, and lawmakers approved $200 million in bonds last year only after hours of debate.

Since 2005, the total cost of the Connecting Idaho plan has been trimmed from $1.6 billion to less than $1 billion, to avoid damaging the state’s bond rating.

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