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Idaho approves highway bonds

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, urges the House to approve an $82 million highway bonding program on Friday morning. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)
Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, urges the House to approve an $82 million highway bonding program on Friday morning. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE - The Idaho House has voted 39-29 in favor of an $82 million highway bonding program, sending the measure to Gov. Butch Otter and giving him a rare victory on a key piece of his transportation initiative this year.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, the House sponsor of the bill, SB 1186, urged support for the program, which uses a special type of bonds called Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles, or GARVEE, that allow Idaho to borrow against its future federal highway allocations.

“By the end of this construction season, 130 lane miles of road will have been improved with the aid of GARVEE,” Eskridge told the House. The bonds fund the “Connecting Idaho” program first launched by then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. Eskridge said with this bill, SB 1186, “Another 35 lane miles of improvements” will follow, he said, “on some of the most traveled and most deteriorated lane miles in our state.” With inflation rates for construction materials, the projects will cost less if built with the bonds, Eskridge said, than if they were “pay as you go” projects built over long years.

Next year’s installment in the bonding goes mostly to major freeway improvements in the Boise area, but a huge North Idaho project, the Garwood to Sagle freeway project on U.S. Highway 95, is next in the pipeline after the Boise projects are completed.

The House debate was mostly against the bill. House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, was among those who spoke out against it. “If we’re not willing to pay ourselves, why are we willing to indebt our children so that they can pay?” she asked the House. She said, “Debt is what has gotten this country into the serious trouble that we’re into today, and GARVEE is the debt that is hurting Idaho … and where are the jobs in Lemhi County, where are the jobs in Idaho County, where are the jobs in Power County, where are the jobs in Madison County?”

Eskridge responded, “There’s nothing wrong with responsible borrowing. … This state has taken on the GARVEE bonding in a responsible manner, and we set a cap.” The state’s GARVEE bonding still is far under the cap, he noted. He added, “What greater debt could we leave our grandchildren than roads that aren’t appropriate and aren’t safe for our grandkids to be driving on?”

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, was among the few to debate in favor of the bonding program. “The need to improve our highways is not going to go away - if we delay they will still be in the condition they are today,” he told the House. “Costs are not going to get lower. We have a very narrow opportunity to continue with highway construction on rates that are uniquely low.”

Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, “Borrowing money and passing the debt on to our kids - I sure don’t want to be a part of something like that.”

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said, “The money that we get from the federal government to fund our highways is not at all secure. … For us to take on more debt right now I think is really unwise. We ought to skip a year. … We’re in some really tough economic times right now, and I think we ought to get through that before we take on more debt.”

Rep. Russ Mathews, R-Idaho Falls, an opponent, told the House, “The GARVEE bond is a bondage, and debt is a bondage.”

Eskridge argued that the bonding program will employ Idahoans, and save money by building projects up-front rather than letting inflation erode the state’s ability to afford them. “This will make a positive difference in Idaho’s economy and our vitality,” Eskridge told the House. “Our state might never be able to fund all of these projects under our traditional methods.”

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