Rep. Don Pischner tried to put strings on the Idaho Transportation Department budget Friday ordering repairs for Highway 95 south of Coeur d’Alene.
Although his motion didn’t pass, he won support from more than a third of the Legislature’s budget committee, and brought plenty of high-level attention to the problem.
“The more people that can call attention to it, the sooner it will be improved,” Pischner said afterward. “We do deserve a safe highway.”
“When you get into budgeting, you get the agency’s attention…. They’re there, and they’re there in force,” he said.
The $12 million project would upgrade Highway 95 from Bellgrove to Mica Hill. It’s a twisting section that now lacks even shoulders, let alone passing lanes.
The project would realign the road to straighten out curves, widen shoulders, and add passing lanes. But it’s not even on the Transportation Department’s five-year plan.
State Transportation Director Dwight Bower sat in the front row as the committee debated Pischner’s motion. Right afterward, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Evan Frasure, R-Pocatello, cornered Bower outside to press the point.
“On 95, I’m serious about that,” Frasure told Bower. “It needs to go on the five-year plan.”
Frasure joined North Idaho lawmakers and others on two tours of Highway 95 from the Canadian border to Boise last summer. The group conducted well-attended public meetings all along the tour.
“The strongest support I’ve seen for any particular section is that one,” Frasure told Bower.
Although Frasure spoke out in support of fixing the road, he didn’t vote for Pischner’s motion in the budget committee. It failed on a 7-12 vote.
Some members said they just couldn’t support that approach, regardless of the merit of the project.
“One of the strengths of the (Idaho Transportation) Board has been they look at the whole state and try to keep the political part out of it,” said Sen. Bruce Sweeney, D-Lewiston, who may be in line for a seat on the Transportation Board at the end of this year. “If we start down this road, you’re going to start seeing these one after another.”
Despite opposing the move to address the issue in the department’s budget, Frasure told the budget committee, “It needs to be put on the radar screen. It’s a bad bottleneck.”
At the summer hearings, parents in North Idaho said they didn’t want to send their kids to the University of Idaho because they would have to travel that way, Frasure said.
“There’s a stretch of very dangerous road that needs to be corrected, so I think Rep. Pischner has a very good point.”
Frasure said he will convey that message to the Transportation Board, and if the board doesn’t act, he’ll “get involved” as the Senate transportation chairman.
Pischner told the committee he was making the proposal on behalf of the entire North Idaho legislative delegation.
“This is a critical project,” he said. “This would get it going.”
After the meeting, Pischner said he doesn’t fault the Transportation Board for making priorities of projects where there are matching funds, either from the federal government or elsewhere. But as more private firms provide matches for projects that benefit them - like the new freeway interchange near Micron Technology in Boise - Pischner said that could skew priorities away from projects the state needs, like the Mica project.
“That particular section of road is a black eye, and it has been overlooked,” he said.
Bower said he’s hoping Congress will authorize more federal transportation funds for the 1999 fiscal year.
He estimated environmental research, design work, right-of-way acquisition and public hearings will take about 42 months. Then, construction will take about a year.