BOISE – Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick has jarred the Army Corps of Engineers into speeding up its work on an environmental impact statement that had been holding up the giant Garwood to Sagle construction project on Highway 95 in North Idaho.
“It has been out there a while, I’m not going to tap-dance about it,” said Leroy Phillips, deputy division chief for the corps’ Walla Walla district. “Once it was indicated that this has become a really high priority … it’s been brought to the forefront.”
Now, the corps is promising the draft impact statement will be out for initial comment by March 13, and the final report will be done by March 20.
“We’ve also set up a sit-down schedule with ITD,” Phillips said.
The issue came up during a legislative hearing this week, when state Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, complained about the delay during a presentation to the Legislature’s joint budget committee by Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee.
“Garwood to Sagle … is consistently delayed because of the inadequacy of the federal government, primarily the Corps of Engineers, to get their environmental work done, which allows us to put a shovel on the road and get somebody to work,” Eskridge said.
Eskridge asked McGee for his thoughts, and the Caldwell Republican, who’s been mulling a run for Congress, said, “I’m frustrated also when it comes to the federal government and the unnecessary environmental strings that are attached to much of the money that they send our way. … I believe that we need to send people to Congress who are going to try to fix those kinds of concerns.”
John Foster, communications director and senior adviser to Minnick, a Democrat, heard about Eskridge’s complaint and took action.
“I had just that morning met with the lieutenant colonel from the Army Corps who runs the Walla Walla office,” Foster said. When Foster relayed the complaint to the lieutenant colonel, “He said, ‘Let me get right on it,’ ” Foster said. “The next day he called me back, said there was a miscommunication of priorities between the Army Corps and ITD.”
Said Foster: “Rep. Eskridge clearly understands the area and he was frustrated that it’d taken a while, so it was a no-brainer for us to call and have a friendly heads-up to the Army Corps. … The Army Corps was extremely helpful.”
Eskridge said he “raised a fuss,” and he’s glad something happened. “We’ve got landowners frustrated – we want to buy land and get them off the hook,” the North Idaho lawmaker said. “But we can’t purchase the property because the EIS isn’t done. We’ve got landowners all the way from Garwood to Sagle waiting.”
Idaho Transportation Department spokesman Jeff Stratten said the impact statement was submitted to the Army Corps for review and comment in November 2007. ITD began holding weekly conference calls with the corps about this and other projects in June 2008.
Phillips said ITD had been trying to push the corps to move on the project, but other projects got ahead of it. “There were a lot of projects out there and this was one of ’em,” he said.
Joe Saxon, chief public affairs officer for the corps in Walla Walla, said, “I’d say the congressman was instrumental in getting this moved forward.”