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Idaho must change stimulus spending plan for roads

BOISE - It appears that Idaho will be able to replace the Dover Bridge in North Idaho, purchase a much-needed maintenance management software system for the Idaho Transportation Department, and pour millions into fixing roads statewide with federal stimulus funds, state lawmakers heard this morning.

Two things Idaho can’t do with the money: Fund all eight of its high-priority “shovel-ready” projects, and pay off GARVEE bonds.

The ITD’s list of eight projects, including the Dover Bridge, adds up to $182 million - the full amount available from the stimulus for highway infrastructure. But the bill requires some of the money to be spent in different ways, and it actually opens the door to using it to fix deteriorating Idaho roads, which state officials hadn’t anticipated.

That list was put together in anticipation that only “shovel-ready” capital projects would be covered. However, the $181.9 million the stimulus will send to Idaho is for “highway infrastructure investment” that includes “construction, reconstruction, rehabilitation, resurfacing, restoration and operational improvements for highways.”

Legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee noted that the law appears to allow for some of the very road maintenance and rehab work that a major audit of ITD said is needed. It also requires 50 percent of the money to be obligated within 120 days, but gives up to a year to obligate the other half.

When the Idaho Transportation Board set its list of “shovel-ready” projects, well before the stimulus bill passed, “it might’ve been a narrower understanding” of what would qualify, Headlee said. “I’m sure they’re going to start working on responding to this.”

House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, had earlier suggested using stimulus money to pay off GARVEE bonds, a type of grant anticipation bond the state has used to borrow against future federal highway allocations to build big projects. She wanted to then take the money that would have gone to bond payments, and put it into rural road maintenance. But the federal bill wouldn’t allow that.

“The response from the federal highway administration is no, those funds cannot be used,” Headlee told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning, in response to a question from Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls.

Henderson also asked about the multimillion-dollar software system for ITD, a critical missing link in the department’s planning process that was identified in the recent state-funded audit.

Headlee said it appears that such systems are specifically covered by the stimulus legislation. “Certainly pavement management is on there,” he said.

Henderson said, “It would be advantageous to acquire it as soon as possible.”

In addition to the $181.9 million for infrastructure, the stimulus bill will send Idaho $18.4 million for transit capital assistance, such as bus purchases. That money can’t go for operating costs, however. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said because the state doesn’t fund operating costs for public transit systems, that could render it unable to use some of that money - because local governments wouldn’t want to acquire buses they can’t afford to run.

The stimulus bill divides the $181.9 million into three pieces: $121.9 million for projects in any geographic area; $54.6 million allocated to areas by population density; and $5.5 million for “transportation enhancements” such as pedestrian and bicycle paths.

Headlee said ITD officials may come back to JFAC next week to talk more about the stimulus.