The seven-year itch: Idaho highway planning

Catie Clark//July 13, 2021

The seven-year itch: Idaho highway planning

Catie Clark//July 13, 2021

The recently completed overpass on Idaho Highway 41.
The recently completed overpass on Idaho Highway 41. Photo Courtesy of the Idaho Transportation Department

The Idaho Transportation Department unveiled a document on July 1 outlining the next seven years of proposed state transportation projects, which will be funded by both federal highway money and more than $1.6 billion in Idaho-backed bonds. ITD also requested comments from the public on its seven-year proposal, with a deadline of July 31.

ITD’s ambitious seven-year plan owes much to the Governor and Legislature of Idaho.

Funding Idaho’s transportation network

In one of the rare congenial moves of the 2021 session of the Idaho Legislature, Gov. Brad Little requested some rather large sums of money for transportation, and the Legislature obliged. He requested moving $126 million from the General Fund to the Local Highway Distribution Fund. Additionally, he asked that $80 million per year of sales tax revenues be placed into the state’s Transportation Expansion and Congestion Mitigation (TECM).

As Little explained to the Idaho Business Review earlier this year, that $80 million of annual sales tax revenue will be used to leverage bond issues by the State of Idaho to fund a total of $1.6 million for transportation through fiscal year 2028.

“The TECM fund will be paid for by state sales tax, with $80 million coming in for TECM projects,” explained ITD spokesperson Jake Melder. “But ITD will not be taking all $1.6 billion in a loan right now…For now, ITD will only be pursuing the portion of projects that are ready for final design and construction, and also environmental clearance projects.” The proposed TECM projects are included in ITD’s proposed seven-year plan.

Environmental clearance refers to the multi-year tasks of conducting environmental studies, creating environmental impact statements and performing public outreach and commentary gathering, which are all pieces of the groundwork ITD performs to comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970.

“We follow the requirements of NEPA for every project,” Melder remarked, “so we can be flexible in obtaining funding, whether it’s from the state or federal aid.” State of Idaho funding does not require NEPA compliance, but every federal agency action or funding decision must follow the NEPA process of environmental evaluation and public outreach.

In addition to Idaho’s money, ITD will also take advantage of both an estimated annual greater-than-$300 million in direct federal highway funding, 30% of which can be used for federal GARVEE program financing.

The ITD seven-year plan

The ITD proposed seven-year planning document is full of projects that will likely meet approval for many communities, such as replacing the decrepit one-lane Slaughter House Bridge on St. Joe City Road in Benewah County, which has been on the county’s watch list for several years already. Some of the projects are large, involving rebuilding entire interchanges on Idaho’s interstate highways, and some are much more modest but still needed, like building Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant ramps in the fast-growth cities of Rexburg and Rigby.

One unique feature that ITD provided to help the public view the proposed project list is an online  mapping tool that interactively displays the projects by fiscal year through 2028, broken out further by state highway projects, local and county highway projects, transit, aeronautics and “other federal highway programs.” The tool is available as a link on the splash page for ITD’s seven-year plan public commentary website.

Some highlights from the proposed project list that ought to cause rejoicing, and maybe even wild partying and expressions of spontaneous joy, include:

  • The completion of Highway 16 between Chinden Blvd. and Interstate 16
  • A new overpass and interchange for the ancient and more-than-well-worn Fort Hall exit on I-15
  • Rebuilding the narrow 1961 South Blackfoot exit on I-15 and its treacherous, sudden on- and off-ramps
  • Replacement of a 101-year-old bridge in Wallace on 6th St. over the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River
  • A new Simco Road interchange on I-84 in Elmore County, to replace the current one, which is not in great shape and whose on- and off-ramps are inadequate to handle 80 MPH traffic
  • Widening, repair and repaving of road surfaces, and selected bridge replacements on sections of Highway US-20 between Rexburg and the Montana border, especially through Island Park.