BOISE, Idaho (AP) Legislative budget writers voted 18-1 March 7 for a new $134 million bond installment of the $1 billion “Connecting Idaho” roads project.
The vote was remarkably amiable, considering the rancorous debate in previous years over how to pay for the state’s largest construction project.
The same Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee last year debated a $246 million installment for hours, approving it on a 12-8 vote that allowed the 2007 Legislature to adjourn.
The Connecting Idaho portion is the most conspicuous part of the Idaho Transportation Department’s total $626 million budget. Besides the bonds, the rest of the money comes from state and federal fuel taxes and other transportation-related fees.
In 2005, then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne set off a firestorm of debate when he proposed that the Transportation Department depart from its pay-as-you-go system of funding highways to issue bonds for some projects, in order to complete them more quickly and save on inflation.
There is still grumbling — a bill now being considered in the House aims to trim Connecting Idaho by more than a third. But March 7’s near-unanimous support among budget writers shows many lawmakers have accepted the plan, which uses a share of Idaho’s federal highway funding to pay off the debt through 2029.
“Given where we are in the program, to stop now would be fundamentally more detrimental than to keep going,” Transportation Department Director Pamela Lowe said.
The lone dissenting vote was cast by Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, a longtime opponent of the Connecting Idaho plan.
At 6 percent inflation on road-building materials, the Connecting Idaho approach to completing projects more quickly will save taxpayers about $500 million in project costs, according to Transportation Department estimates. At 7 percent, the savings are $1.3 billion. Lowe has said inflation on the materials is actually more than 10 percent.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, who made the next round of Connecting Idaho funding a priority, applauded the vote.
“This is an important tool in helping meet Idaho’s transportation infrastructure needs,” Otter said in a statement.
Even so, some lawmakers cautioned that the latest round of Connecting Idaho won’t address all of the state’s growing transportation funding needs.
The Transportation Department estimates that a $200 million annual funding shortfall identified in 2005 has risen with inflation to $240 million just three years later. Lawmakers in the House and Senate, as well as Otter, are debating measures to raise additional revenue, including competing plans to increase registration fees on personal cars and long-haul trucks.
“We have a transportation problem in this state,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “The only way to fix that is to develop efficiencies within the department and to develop new sources of revenue.”
If the full House and Senate back the measure, $597 million in bonds will have been approved over three years.
Though not all that money has been spent — Lowe concedes Connecting Idaho started sluggishly, due to the timing of preparing projects for construction — Lowe expects all bonds will have been issued by July 2009.
Projects to benefit from the funding include stretches of the winding, two-lane U.S. Highway 95 in northern Idaho; more than 30 mi. (48 km) of the congested Interstate 84 between Caldwell and Boise; work on a new alignment of State Highway 16 connecting I-84 to Emmett; and reconstruction of 6.1 mi. (9.8 km) of U.S. 30 between McCammon and Lava Hot Springs in eastern Idaho.
“You could still do more work in these corridors,” Lowe said. “But you do get new completed usable projects that the public is certainly going to benefit from.”
There was still frustration from some lawmakers in regions bypassed by Connecting Idaho money, including southern Idaho near Twin Falls. There, an alternate route for U.S. 93 and a new bridge over the Snake River on Kempthorne’s original list never got funding. Some blame annual debt service on the bonds for taking cash that might otherwise go into other projects that never made the Connecting Idaho list.
“The ’aye’ vote is sometimes kind of hard for those of us who haven’t seen any action on our” roads, said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome.
Still, most lawmakers urged their colleagues to acknowledge some growing regions of the state have greater need for Connecting Idaho-related transportation improvements than other, less-populous areas.
“I think it’s important we look at some of these things from a statewide perspective,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, whose constituents regularly use Interstate 84, which often turns into a parking lot during rush hour.