With Idaho lawmakers unlikely to tackle significant transportation funding in 2014, one senator plans to ask legislative auditors to scrutinize the $840 million “Connecting Idaho” highway building program to help determine if it should be extended — or put on ice.
Eight years ago, then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne overcame fierce objections from debt-leery lawmakers to his multiyear, bonds-for-roads plan to improve highways, boost safety, skirt inflation and cement his pro-business legacy.
Come January, Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, will ask the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations to scrutinize whether the resulting Connecting Idaho-created construction flurry accomplished what Kempthorne promised, or if the state would have been better sticking to its traditional, pay-as-you-go system of highway funding. To cover bonds, Idaho is paying about $50 million annually over the next two decades, some 20 percent of its federal highway funding allotment.
Winder said next year is a good time for the review, since lawmakers predict no major road-funding decisions until 2015, after elections.
“I know there are some construction companies working today that wouldn’t still be in business, if it hadn’t been for” Connecting Idaho, said Winder, a former Idaho Transportation Board chairman who in 2005 backed Kempthorne’s program. “But when it comes to talking about debt service, what are we getting for our money?”
More than 150 companies have benefited as hundreds of millions were poured into six corridors along U.S. Highway 95 in northern Idaho, U.S. Interstate 84 between Boise and Caldwell, State Highway 16 near Emmett and U.S. Highway 30 east of Pocatello.
In at least in one area — highway safety — state Transportation Department officials say data they’ve collected before and after completion of projects indicates lives have been saved.
In the 36 months before additional lanes were added to Interstate 84 near Meridian, there were three fatal accidents and 21 serious injury accidents. In the 36 months following completion, there were no fatalities and just nine serious-injury crashes. The total crash rate on the 6.5-mile stretch dropped 38 percent, according to ITD data.
Near Worley, after realignment and widening of more than four miles of U.S. 95, the accident rate fell 81 percent.
And on a Connecting Idaho-improved stretch of U.S. Highway 30 near Lava Hot Springs that’s become a major thoroughfare for commercial trucking traffic, the crash rate fell 76 percent.
“We’re very pleased with the way it worked,” said Scott Stokes, ITD’s deputy director, told The Associated Press in an interview, adding creating highways more forgiving of driver error was just one Connecting Idaho justification, along with reducing commute times, stimulating commerce and streamlining road maintenance.
Accident and fatality numbers have also fallen on Idaho highways not targeted by the debt-for-roads program, separate statistics indicate. Since 2008, the total crash rate on all Idaho roads has fallen about 6 percent; the fatality rate slid by more than 10 percent.
Dave Carlson, AAA of Idaho spokesman, doesn’t dispute Connecting Idaho improvements have reduced accidents, but says that other factors contributed, too: Automobiles are growing safer, he said, while a stagnating economy may have meant some Idaho residents stayed off the roads.
With an estimated $260 million annual backlog of road and bridge maintenance, according to ITD figures, Carlson says Connecting Idaho’s debt-for-roads model has played out.
“In my personal opinion, we’ve been down that road,” Carlson said.
Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, represents a southwestern Idaho district that’s benefited from Connecting Idaho work. But he sides with Carlson.
“Bonding is a temporary measure,” Rice said. “You’ve got to take care of the underlying funding problem in the first place.”
To tackle that, other proposals include lifting Idaho’s 25-cent-per-gallon gas tax, stagnant since 1996, and overhauling car and truck registration fees. Those ideas were pushed unsuccessfully in 2009 by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to boost ITD coffers and there’s discussion of resurrecting that effort.
Like Winder, however, Republican Rep. JoAn Wood, a former House Transportation Committee Chairwoman from Rigby, is skeptical of major highway-funding legislation, especially with GOP lawmakers facing potential primary challenges.
“There’s a real hesitancy for legislators in an election year to raise taxes,” Wood said.