BOISE – Ambitious plans to transform U.S. Highway 95 between Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint into a four-lane, divided freeway are slipping further into the future.
Delays in environmental approvals, escalating costs, concerns about the economy and uncertain federal highway funding all have conspired to delay the eventual completion of the 31-mile, 12-interchange freeway project.
“The depressing news is that our dollars are not going to stretch as far as we had hoped,” said state Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint.
This week, the Idaho Transportation Board approved a much-scaled-back recommendation for bonding next year for major transportation projects including the Garwood-to-Sagle project on U.S. 95. Instead of $299 million in bonds to be issued next year, including $89.4 million for construction in the Chilco and Athol areas on the Garwood-to-Sagle project, the board recommended $125 million in bonds, all for southern Idaho projects.
That doesn’t mean the Garwood work is going away. Plans now call for that construction work to be covered by the following year’s bond issue, which would include $103 million for the Garwood-to-Sagle project.
But the plans have been re-evaluated and re-staged, and as things look now, by the end of the $998 million, 10-year GARVEE bonding project, only 14.8 miles of the new freeway and three interchanges will be completed.
GARVEE bonds are a special bonding method that allows states to borrow against their future federal highway allocations; the name stands for Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles. Then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne proposed an ambitious, $1.6 billion, multiyear GARVEE bonding plan, but lawmakers have scaled it back, and cost increases and delays have scaled it back further.
“This request represents a cautious and prudent approach as we navigate through a period of uncertain federal funding,” Darrell Manning, chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board, said in a statement this week. “We asked the department staff to look at very conservative scenarios for future federal funding and recommend a bonding amount based on those scenarios. With this conservative approach, we are confident that Idaho will safely be able to make the future debt payments and contract for the projects that are most ready to begin.”
So far, the Idaho Legislature has approved $584 million in GARVEE bonds, including $134 million issued this year.
Scott Stokes, deputy director of the Idaho Transportation Department, said the changes in the highway construction program were designed with two aims in mind: to maintain the efficiency and momentum of the bonding program, and to do so while “carefully and cautiously navigating our current financial environment nationwide.”
Stokes said questions regarding how the new North Idaho freeway route would impact wetlands and how those impacts will be mitigated are still being worked out among various federal agencies. “I would say we’re probably at least a year behind schedule with the environmental impact statement,” he said.
The department has also conducted a “value engineering study” to look at how best to phase the project, in view of delays and shortfalls. That led to some changes, including a halt to purchase of right-of-way for future interchanges that won’t be built for years, and more focus on construction on segments of the route that can be built now.
The full freeway, from Garwood to Sagle, still is planned and covered by the environmental impact statement that’s being developed. But the GARVEE bonding project now is envisioned to result in just part of that: a four-lane road from state Highway 53, with the lanes divided in some areas, stretching to north of Athol at the Granite area. New freeway interchanges along the route would be at Chilco Road, state Highway 54, and Bunco Road/Silverwood.
Keough said she’s glad the department is focusing on portions of the route that can be built right away. “That’s what we should’ve been doing in the first place,” she said. “What’s distressing is that we’re not being able to do all that we had promised that we would do, and then we are leaving some folks high and dry.”
Residents and businesses along the highway corridor whose properties would be affected by the eventual freeway route are in a difficult spot, Keough said.
“The people there were promised this new modern highway, and since that time a great deal of work has been done and plans been put forward and lines drawn on the map, to the degree that property owners along that corridor … have had their lives on hold.”
She said, “We’ve got tales of people feeling as though they have to file bankruptcy because they can’t refinance, because the bank’s got a map that shows the highway going through their house; businesses that want to sell but can’t tell the potential buyers where the highway’s going to be.”
Keough said the changes may make the bonding less attractive to lawmakers, who must vote each year to approve each new round of bonds – particularly to those who see no benefit to their districts.
The GARVEE bonding project targets high-priority highway projects around the state. One of them, improvements to U.S. 95 south of Coeur d’Alene, is nearly complete. The program also includes three major freeway projects in the congested Treasure Valley area around Boise, and another between McCammon and Lava Hot Springs in eastern Idaho.