The Idaho Transportation Department’s new director, one month on the job, began his public pitch to lawmakers to raise more money for the state’s highways and bridges during a legislative hearing Feb. 11.
Brian Ness, who took over the agency on Jan. 11 after 30 years with the Michigan Transportation Department, pledged to make the department more efficient and accountable at the same time that he’s trying to woo lawmakers for more transportation dollars.
“There are good things happening at our department, but we can always do better,” he told lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “We must continually show that we are good stewards of the people’s money before we can ask them for additional cost and expense.”
Ness replaced former Director Pam Lowe, who was fired by the state transportation board in July, reportedly because of her communication with lawmakers.
Lowe is challenging her ouster in court, alleging she was terminated in part because of her efforts to trim a $50 million construction contract that would have benefited firms that donated to the campaigns of both Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and Idaho Senate Transportation Committee Chair John McGee.
Meanwhile, the governor has convened a transportation funding task force, which is expected to release a set of recommendations for how to boost money for roads and bridges by the end of 2010.
Ness presented a $503.6 million budget proposal for the 2011 fiscal year to the committee. That’s down from $538.7 million last year.
Yet the department benefited from an influx of money in 2009 from the federal economic stimulus program and another round of Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle, or GARVEE, bonds. The $900 million GARVEE program accelerates highway construction by financing it with bonds later paid off with federal highway money.
The stimulus program brought $182 million to ITD in 2009, including $17 million the agency passed on to local highway districts. The money paid for 19 state projects, creating or sustaining 2,100 jobs, Ness said.
With the help of new GARVEE bonds, the department awarded about $200 million worth of contracts on 11 projects in 2009. The projects came in $55.5 million below estimates because of historically low interest rates of 4 percent and cutthroat competition among contractors.
That allowed the department to push ahead with only $27.7 million of GARVEE projects this year, with nearly $180 million worth of projects remaining in the program.
Lawmakers asked whether the state should pursue more GARVEE bonding this year to lock in low interest rates and commodity prices.
Administrator Dave Tollman said it might not be a wise use of resources since environmental reviews are not complete and plans for the projects could still change.