A grand plan to improve U.S. Highway 95 from Canada to the Oregon line won approval from a legislative committee Thursday.
“I’ve been waiting 27 years for something like this to come up,” Rep. Marv Vandenberg, D-Coeur d’Alene, told sponsor John Goedde. Vandenberg and other lawmakers shook Goedde’s hand.
The House Transportation and Defense Committee voted unanimously to send Goedde’s Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce proposal to the full House for a vote.
The plan, modeled after Coeur d’Alene’s successful project to improve Ramsey Road and Government Way, calls for a statewide vote on a $300 million bond issue. The bonds would be paid off with a 3-cent gas tax hike and a $10 increase in vehicle registration fees.
In 15 years or less, when the bonds are paid off, the tax and fee increases would end. And during that time, all the other money - typically about $19.6 million a year - that Idaho normally spends on Highway 95 repair projects would be freed up for other projects around the state. Half that money would go to state highway projects, and the other half to local road repairs.
“I’ve heard this bill was destined to go down in flames,” Rep. Donna Jones, R-Payette, told the committee. “However, stop and think about this proposal. It’d give us the north-south corridor, and it wouldn’t be piecemeal.”
At the same time, there would be money for roadwork all around the state, she said.
“And most important, it’s a vote of the people.” The vote would be a referendum, requiring a simple majority. If the bill becomes law, it would go on the November ballot.
“Highway 95 is not North Idaho’s road. It is Idaho’s road. It’s the one thing that links the north and the south,” Goedde told the committee.
He was joined in testifying for the bill by Idaho State Police field operations commander Maj. Tom Thompson, who said the project would save lives, and Port of Lewiston manager David Doeringsfeld, who said it would boost commerce.
Though Highway 95 makes up just 1 percent of Idaho’s roads, it’s responsible for 10 percent of the state’s traffic fatalities.
Doeringsfeld said, “Highway 95 is critical to us.”
Ninety percent of the Idaho exports that go out through the Port of Lewiston - Idaho’s only seaport - are trucked there via Highway 95, he said. That’s everything from potato flakes from southeastern Idaho to wood products from North Idaho.
But one of the region’s largest trucking firms, Swift Trucking of Lewiston, is now routing its trucks through Oregon and Washington because it considers Highway 95 unsafe. That’s costing Idaho $312,000 a year in lost taxes.
State Treasurer Lydia Justice Edwards told the committee she’s never seen better market conditions for a bond issue, and called the proposal “exciting.”
“We know our economy follows the road,” she said. “Let’s fix our roads.”
Rep. Frank Bruneel, R-Lewiston, said of the proposal, “When you first look at it, you think, nah. Then, when you study it and think what it could do, it could accomplish a great many things.”
“I think it’ll fly,” he said.
The $300 million would bring all of Highway 95 to a standard 34-foot width, with guardrails and passing lanes where needed. It also would straighten dangerous curves and improve pavement.