Idaho highway funding gearing up

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Idaho Sen. Shawn Keough, left, and former legislator George Eskridge, center, listen as Rep. Sage Dixon talks at a recent Bonner County Area Transportation Team meeting. (Photo by KEITH KINNAIRD)

SANDPOINT — Idaho lawmakers detailed several pieces of legislation Thursday that are meant to erode the state’s transportation maintenance backlog without sacrificing new highway projects that improve safety, advance commerce and ease congestion.

The small collection of House and Senate bills provides up to $300 million in bonding authority through the federal Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle program, which enables states to pay debt service with future federal-aid highway funds. The GARVEE funding will be put toward a dozen highway projects across the state, including several on U.S. Highway 95 in the northern Panhandle, according to the legislation.

District 1 state Sen. Shawn Keough said during a well-attended Bonner County Area Transportation Team meeting that those projects involving improving U.S. Highway 95’s intersection with state Highway 53 in Kootenai County and extending highway improvements north of Granite Hill into Bonner County.

“What I can’t wrap my mind around is that project’s determined to be about $22 million in cost. It’s just incredible to me how much these projects costs,” Keough said, referring to highway widening north of Granite Hill.

It was not immediately clear last week exactly how far the improvements would extend into Bonner County, however.

The legislative package also continued Idaho’s surplus eliminator, which shunts half the surplus tax revenue into the state’s contingency budget stabilization fund and a strategic initiative fund to pay for needed transportation projects.

Idaho House Rep. Sage Dixon said continuing the surplus eliminator was vital to eating away at a $250 million backlog in highway fixes.

“I thought that it was important to continue to address that problem because the last time we were here speaking about transportation issues it was reiterated again: We still have a backlog on our maintenance issues that we need to deal with,” Dixon told BCATT.

Revenue from the surplus eliminator varies annually. In the past two years, that revenue has ranged from between $21.9 million to as much as $108.3 million.

The bill packet also provides for 1 percent of sales tax revenues — an estimated $15 million in 2018 — to a newly created transportation expansion and congestion mitigation fund. Moreover, Safe Routes to Schools project, which enhance pedestrian safety, can qualify for funding under the state’s strategic initiatives program.

“It’s a huge leap forward for the Safe Routes to Schools program, which you likely know is an important component of our transportation system,” said Keough.

While lawmakers grappled with funding overdue highway repairs and necessary transportation expansion, they were thrown the curve ball that was the winter of 2016/’17. Roads in southern Idaho were hammered early on and now northern Idaho roads are getting pounded by saturating rains, flooding, washouts and landslides.

To address the issue, lawmakers passed legislation which transfers $50 million from the state’s general fund to a emergency relief fund and another $2 million a disaster emergency fund. The funding will be administered by the Idaho Office of Emergency Management review panel and available to Idaho counties with declared disasters.

Keough wished more could have been done to address storm-battered roads this year.

“It’s not enough, but it’s something,” she said.

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