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Eye On Boise

Posts tagged: Idaho Transportation Department

Winder wants review of ‘Connecting Idaho’ road bonding program

Idaho Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, wants the state's Office of Performance Evaluations to scrutinize whether the $840 million “Connecting Idaho” highway building program accomplished what it promised, or whether the state would have been better off forgoing the bonding program and 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, a former Idaho Transportation Board chairman and third-term senator who supported the bonding plan, told the AP it's a good time for the review, with Idaho lawmakers unlikely to tackle significant transportation funding in 2014. Though the state faces a huge backlog in needed transportation improvements, lawmakers say fixes are unlikely to come in an election year. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

ITD’s eminent domain battles with North Idaho landowners run up big tab, land in court…

Alan Johnson’s company lost 16.3 acres of prime property along U.S. 95 in North Idaho when the state seized it for a new interchange under eminent domain law.  Now the shopping center developer stands to lose another $1.1 million, which is how much the state paid an outside law firm to wrangle over reimbursement for the property – because the state wants Johnson’s company to pay the legal fees the Idaho Transportation Department incurred in trying to seize the land. Johnson calls the tactic “completely unconstitutional,” a sentiment echoed by his lawyer, who said the episode is a “perversion” of law.

The case, now pending before the Idaho Supreme Court, is raising questions about Idaho’s use of eminent domain; a local legislator, Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, says Idaho needs to change its laws. Meanwhile, the shopping center site – slated for the Athol area’s first major grocery store – stands vacant as the multi-year court fight continues.  “I’ve never encountered anything like this,” said Johnson. “All we’re trying to do is get the fair market value for what the property was, to get the access to the site after it’s done, and to make sure that our utility issues were taken care of,” he said, adding, “For every dollar we spend in attorney fees, the state spends about $3 or $4. … There’s got to be an easier way to do this.”

ITD has spent $2.1 million and counting on legal fees to an outside firm to battle over prices for seized property along the Garwood-to-Sagle project on Highway 95. Another property owner, Dee Jameson, had his own year-plus legal fight with the state, after which the state’s legal bills added up to nearly as much as it agreed to pay Jameson. “I don’t think they gained any ground by their strategy,” said Jameson, a past president of the Idaho Association of Realtors. He said the long fight over the price was “a total waste of the state’s time and money, in my opinion.” You can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

ITD board votes to tap state funds to keep fed road projects in Idaho going in shutdown

The Idaho Transportation Board voted today to use state funds to pay contractors working on federal highway projects in Idaho if the federal government shutdown continues beyond Thursday. The alternative would be to shut down $30 million a month in federal highway projects under way in Idaho, along with another $875,000 in transit services; ITD will seek reimbursement from the feds after the shutdown ends. “We want to honor the contracts that have already been awarded and keep people working,” said Idaho Transportation Board Chairman Jerry Whitehead; click below for ITD’s full announcement.

ITD asks for public comment on new rules for extra-heavy trucks on routes around state

The Idaho Transportation Department is taking public comments through Oct 24 on new rules allowing extra-heavy trucks on additional routes in Idaho, and the department has set a series of public meetings around the state, starting in Pocatello on Oct. 7 and running through a Boise meeting Oct. 17. Click below for ITD's full announcement. The Idaho Legislature this year passed new laws making permanent a 10-year pilot project allowing trucks up to 129,000 pounds on 35 specific southern Idaho routes, plus another law allowing additional heavy-truck routes to be designated statewide.

ITD maintenance workers complete second duckling rescue in a month

The Idaho Transportation Department’s Incident Response team responded to an unusual emergency on Friday: Ten ducklings that had fallen into a drain at the Exit 50 A-B ramp of I-84, next to the soundwall of the Flying Wye bridge.

A passing motorist reported the ducklings had fallen into the drain; ITD workers arrived on the scene eight minutes later. They used a hoist mounted on the back of their maintenance truck to pull off the drain cover, and two workers then rigged up a bucket and rope and dipped out nine of the ducklings.

The 10th remained trapped; worker James Cherry dropped down into the drain, which was 7 feet deep, to try to rescue it, but it went too far up the pipe and was unreachable.  The nine rescued ducklings were then returned to a stormwater retention pond at the Flying Wye, where they swam safely out with their mother.

It was ITD’s second duckling rescue in a month; the first came when a mother duck and her brood fell into a storm drain on the grounds of ITD’s headquarters in Boise.

ITD enlists goats to munch on roadside noxious weeds, results ‘promising’

The Idaho Transportation Department says it’s having success with its latest weed-control method for areas near water, where spraying herbicides is a no-no: Goats. A herd of about 100 rented goats was turned loose into a fenced area around a retention pond on Eagle Road in mid-May, just north of Chinden Boulevard. They spent two days munching on noxious weeds including white top, Scotch thistle and poison hemlock. And unlike either herbicides or mowing, the goats didn’t leave dry plant material behind that can fuel wildfires.

“It just looks better,” said Connie Marshall, ITD southwest Idaho roadside vegetation coordinator. “By the time the goats were done, the eyesore was gone.”

ITD launched its next goat project in the area yesterday, with about 30 goats chewing on weeds around a pond near I-84 and the Robinson Road overpass. Once they’re done there, the goats have two other appointments at unsightly, weedy spots along the freeway. The technique’s been used in other parts of the state and notably by the city of Boise, but this was the first time ITD tried it in this region. Said Dan Bryant, ITD’s Southwest Idaho maintenance coordinator, “The results are promising.”

New heavy-truck routes in North Idaho likely at least a year away

Controversial legislation to let extra-heavy trucks – up to 129,000 pounds – run by permit on state and local routes throughout Idaho is now law, but it’s unlikely any new routes will be designated for the heavier trucks in North Idaho before the spring of next year. Idaho’s state transportation board is starting a lengthy rule-making process to figure out how to handle requests for trucks exceeding the state’s current 105,500-pound weight limit, including requests for segments of busy, winding U.S. Highway 95 through North Idaho. The new rules would be presented to lawmakers for approval in their 2014 legislative session.

“I think the primary thing is the way the roads are built in North Idaho: Can they handle the weight?” asked Jim Coleman, the Panhandle member of the state transportation board. “I think you have to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.”

The ITD’s approach is drawing plaudits from the new law’s opponents, who include North Idaho lawmakers, local government officials, highway districts and even loggers and truckers. Mill owners and agricultural producers, led by Coeur d’Alene-based Idaho Forest Group, proposed and backed the new law, saying hauling bigger loads will boost their efficiency and bottom lines in a big way – and also mean fewer trucks total on the roads. State Transportation Director Brian Ness said, “We can’t rush something through and risk public safety. … We serve the taxpayers of Idaho, and we have an obligation to listen to them, get their input.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Decision pending in megaloads case in federal court…

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge appeared sympathetic to an environmental group's contention that the U.S. Forest Service can intervene to protect U.S. Highway 12's scenic characteristics from impacts of giant oil-equipment shipments. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill told lawyers for Idaho Rivers United and the Forest Service Wednesday he'll issue a decision quickly, likely by week's end. Idaho Rivers United argues the Forest Service should have intervened in 2011 when the Idaho Transportation Department allowed ExxonMobil to haul loads between Lewiston and the Kearl Oil Sands projects in southern Alberta. Meanwhile, a Forest Service lawyer argues the case should be dismissed, in large part because the ExxonMobil loads have been completed via alternate routes. Even so, the Idaho Transportation Department continues to issue permits for so-called “megaloads,” as recently as last month.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

State’s legal bill for defense in Pam Lowe case tops $614K

The state's legal bill for fighting former ITD chief Pam Lowe's wrongful firing lawsuit has swelled to $614,647, according to information obtained under the Idaho Public Records Law. Idaho's Risk Management office in the state Department of Administration, responding to a pending public records request from Eye on Boise, reported that figure for total attorney fees and other defense costs for the state as of the date of dismissal. Kit Coffin, risk management chief, reported, “That is the total of all in hand on the date of dismissal. There may be another bill or two from work relating to that.”

After close to three years of litigation, the state settled with Lowe for $750,000; it also gave her a positive job reference, which was attached to the settlement.

ITD: ‘Concluded a settlement is the best course at this time’

The Idaho Transportation Department, in a news release today on the state's settlement with former ITD chief Pam Lowe, said, “The Idaho Transportation Board still believes it was appropriate and within its legal rights to fire Ms. Lowe, but concluded a settlement is the best course at this time.” ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said, “The board was prepared to take its case to trial, but the potential risks, time, expense, and possible appeals meant the costs of litigation would continue to escalate.” The board also continued to dispute Lowe's claims in her wrongful-firing lawsuit; click below to read ITD's full news release.

Lowe: ‘I tried to resolve this dispute early on for much less money’

Pam Lowe, former Idaho Transporation chief, had these comments today on the settlement she reached with the state in her wrongful firing lawsuit, in response to questions from Eye on Boise:

“I recognize that $750,000 is a lot of money, but it is a compromise and was much less than my actual damages.” Lowe's attorney fees, back wages and benefits alone added up to close to $500,000. “Comparatively, certainly it's a fraction of the cost to taxpayers of the GARVEE contract,” she noted, referring to the $50 million contract with politically well-connected firms that she tried to trim back to $30 million - and that since has swelled to more than $80 million.

Said Lowe, “I tried to resolve this dispute early on, even as early as at the time of my termination, for much less money than what ITD is paying me now.”

She added, “As you can see from the settlement agreement, my attorneys received 25 percent of the total amount paid. That's in addition to some other fees that I paid them, and I thought they did a fantastic job. But what I paid for my attorney fees was a fraction of what the state paid, and I do believe I got great value.” The state of Idaho paid nearly $600,000 in fees to a private law firm that handled its end of the case, and more bills still could come in.

“I'm certainly happy to put this behind me,” Lowe said. “I've spent my entire career as a public servant dedicated to transparency and to transportation, and I've focused on saving Idaho taxpayers money while constructing the transportation system.” She said, “I'm a positive person and I'm glad to take a positive step and put this litigation behind me and be able to move on with my life. I'm proud of what I accomplished at ITD.”

Attached to the settlement, the ITD board gave Lowe a letter of recommendation for future jobs. “As their employment letter states, throughout my career at ITD including my term as director, I did my job. And that letter was significant,” she said. “I had nothing but positive performance evaluations, and my last written evaluation by the chairman of the board said I was an exceptional manager and saved Idaho $50 million. So I'm pleased with my accomplishments at the Idaho Transportation Department.”

Idaho pays fired ITD chief $750,000, gives her positive letter of recommendation

The state of Idaho is paying $750,000 to former Transportation Director Pam Lowe to settle her wrongful-firing lawsuit, bringing the state's total cost for the case to $1.34 million. That's because Idaho already has paid $590,833 to the private law firm it hired to defend it against Lowe's lawsuit, according to information obtained under the Idaho Public Records Law; more bills may yet come due.

Lowe, the department's first female director, charged she was fired without cause, because she resisted political pressure against reducing a giant contract with a  politically well-connected firm; she also alleged gender discrimination. She was replaced by a man who started at a salary $22,000 higher than hers.

The settlement, released today after final papers were filed in federal court this morning, includes a glowing job recommendation for Lowe, signed by the chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

State pays another $35K to law firm for defense in Pam Lowe wrongful firing case; bill up to almost $600K

Public records revealed today that the state has sent another $34,594 payment to the private law firm it hired to defend the state Transportation Board against a wrongful-firing lawsuit from ousted former state Transportation Director Pam Lowe. Lowe, the department's first female chief, recently settled her lawsuit, which charged both gender discrimination and political pressure; the settlement hasn't yet been disclosed. The state's legal bill to the law firm of Holland & Hart now adds up to nearly $600,000 - more precisely, $590,833.

Popkey: State spends $$ to send Hart to ALEC confab, hire PR firm on Lowe case; IEA spends to back Repubs

Among a boatload of interesting items posted on the Idaho Statesman's Idaho Politics blog by columnist Dan Popkey are these:

* At least five Idaho lawmakers are off to Salt Lake this week for the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conference, including defeated Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, who is traveling at state expense, as is Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens. Popkey reports that Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, the Idaho state chair for ALEC, opted to go at her own expense; read his full post here.

* In the primary election, the Idaho Education Association funneled $9,320 into a new PAC called Idaho Republicans for our Schools, which used the money for robo-calls supporting five GOP legislative candidates: GOP Sens. Shawn Keough, Tim Corder and Dean Cameron, and GOP candidates Stan Bastian and Alan Ward. Rick Jones of Rathdrum, IEA vice president, a Republican and the treasurer of the new PAC, told Popkey, “There are many Idaho educators who are Republicans. What we're saying is let's vote for Republicans who support public education, they're not mutually exclusive.” You can read Popkey's full item here.

* Word that Holland & Hart, the private law firm hired by the state to defend it against former ITD chief Pam Lowe's wrongful-firing lawsuit, spent $4,419 in state money to hire Gallatin Public Affairs Group for “litigation assistance” in the first half of 2010, including advice on how the lawsuit would be portrayed in the news media. Read the full report here.

State’s legal bill mounts for fighting Lowe wrongful-firing lawsuit

The state of Idaho's legal bill for fighting the wrongful termination lawsuit from former Transportation Director Pam Lowe: $540,479 and counting. Information obtained under the Idaho Public Records Law shows that's how much the state has paid the Boise law firm of Holland & Hart for the case thus far; the case has now been settled, though final papers still are to be filed in court. The last payment was made March 8, according to state records. The Idaho Transportation Department hired prominent attorney Newal Squyres of the firm, who when hired was the president of the Idaho State Bar, to defend the state against the suit; Lowe won a major ruling on March 31, when a federal magistrate held that she was not, as the state had argued, an “at-will” employee who could be dismissed without cause.

Lowe's lawsuit, which charged political pressure, sex discrimination and more in her dismissal, was filed in 2009 after the ITD board abruptly fired the professional engineer and longtime employee; she was ITD’s first female director.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter today, asked about the state's three-year fight against Lowe's lawsuit and the resulting legal bill, said, “I'm not sure I'm allowed to say anything about anything - everything's sealed.”

Lowe: ‘I’m very pleased’

Former Idaho Transportation Director Pam Lowe, contacted at her new job in Delaware, said of her settlement with the state of Idaho in her wrongful-firing lawsuit, “All I can tell you is this has been resolved, and I'm pleased with the resolution. … I can't talk about what's in it. I just can tell you that I'm very pleased to have it resolved.”

Lowe said, “I'm just really excited about looking to the future.” She's currently working as financial director for the state Department of Transportation in Delaware. “I'm enjoying the challenges here and I'm doing a lot of fascinating, interesting things,” she said. “They hired me to work on some projects and I'm going to continue to do that. So I'm excited about the things I'm actually accomplishing here, but Idaho is my home and I do plan to return.” She added, “My house and my husband and my family are still in Boise, and that's still my home.”

Idaho settles wrongful firing suit from former ITD chief Pam Lowe

The state of Idaho has settled a lawsuit filed by fired former Transportation Director Pam Lowe, who charged she was illegally let go for standing up to political pressure and was discriminated against because she was female. Lowe was the Idaho Transportation Department's first female director; after she was fired, she was replaced by a man who is being paid $22,000 a year more than she made.

No information was immediately available on the terms of the settlement; Lowe had sought reinstatement in her job, back pay and benefits, and attorney fees and costs as well as damages for emotional distress. Just the back pay, benefits and attorney fees would add up to close to half a million dollars. Lowe , a professional engineer, was a longtime ITD employee, starting there in 1993 and rising to director in January of 2007. She was named the department’s first female district engineer in 2000.

In April, she won a key ruling in the case, when U.S. Magistrate Judge Ron Bush ruled that Lowe wasn't an “at-will” employee who could be dismissed without cause, as the state had argued. She contended her firing came because she tried to scale back a big contract with a politically well-connected firm; that she was fired without cause and without being allowed a hearing; and that she was discriminated against because she’s female. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

ITD: Disappointed, will consider appeal

The Idaho Transportation Department has issued the following statement on a federal judge's ruling over the weekend in favor of fired former ITD Director Pam Lowe:

“The department is disappointed in the ruling and will consider an appeal. Based on this ruling, the next step is to determine whether or not the Idaho Transportation Board provided due process to Ms. Lowe. The ruling does not address claims of gender discrimination and wrongful firing. No schedule has been set by the court to hear these claims.”

Lowe: ‘It was McGee, and it was blackmail’

“I am absolutely elated,” fired former ITD Director Pam Lowe said this morning, after a federal judge sided with her over the weekend in a key ruling in her wrongful termination lawsuit. “It absolutely vindicated me and what I had been saying, and that is that the board was happy with my work, I had done a good job, I had had nothing but positive comments from the board as well as certainly my formal evaluations, but that the board succumbed to political blackmail and pressure from John McGee when he ran that bill.”

McGee, then chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, introduced legislation in 2009 to strip the Idaho Transportation Board of the ability to hire and fire the director, though the bill didn't pass. “He was interested in helping his campaign contributors,” Lowe said, “and I didn't want to do what he wanted done with that contract, which was to throw a bunch more money at them that didn't need to happen, and he ran that bill to strip the board of their powers.” McGee, who resigned from the Senate this year in the wake of sexual harassment allegations from a female Senate staffer, couldn't immediately be reached for comment; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

In 2009, a multimillion-dollar contract with two Idaho firms to oversee major bonded highway construction projects in the state was being cut back; the lead firm, URS, formerly Washington Group, was a big donor to Gov. Butch Otter's election campaigns, as well as to McGee's. Lowe said the governor's chief of staff pressured her not to reduce the contract, and McGee's bill was in response to her move.

“I had more than one board member tell me that it was McGee and it was blackmail,” she said. “They had no reason other than pure politics to terminate me.” She added, “It was purely political reasons, and it was certainly not one of the four reasons that the judge has said needed to happen in order for a proper termination to occur.”

Lowe wins key ruling in her wrongful firing case as ITD director

U.S. Magistrate Judge Ron Bush has ruled in favor of fired ITD Director Pam Lowe on a key point in her wrongful-firing case: That she wasn't an “at-will” employee who could be dismissed without cause. It's a significant win for Lowe, who contends her firing came because she tried to scale back a big contract with a politically well-connected firm; that she was fired without cause and without being allowed a hearing; and that she was discriminated against because she's female. She was the first woman to head the Idaho Transportation Department; she since has been replaced by a man who is being paid $22,000 a year more than she made.

The judge's ruling, issued Saturday, opens the way for consideration of the gender-bias and political pressure claims.

At issue was the 1974 law creating the ITD director's position, saying, “The director shall serve at the pleasure of the board and may be removed by the board for inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office.”

The department didn't cite any of the four reasons from the law in firing Lowe. Instead, the ITD board said in 2009, that Lowe's firing would “help the department continue improving customer service, economy of operations, accountability and our relations with the Legislature.” In court documents, the state contended Lowe was fired for not adequately dealing with the Legislature, which it said meant she was doing a poor job despite good reviews for her internal management of the department. You can read the judge's 57-page decision here.

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About this blog

Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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