February 28, 2009 in Idaho

Stimulus may pay to repair roads

Parameters surprise officials in Idaho
Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

BOISE – Idaho may be able to use federal economic stimulus money for high-priority needs like paving roads, state lawmakers learned Friday, rather than just for big “shovel-ready” construction projects.

That news was a surprise – the Idaho Transportation Board had prepared a list of eight “shovel-ready” projects that would take up the entire $181.9 million Idaho stands to receive for highway infrastructure. Replacement of the deteriorating Dover Bridge on Highway 2 in Bonner County, a $40 million project, is among the items on the list, which includes projects all over the state.

“What was surprising to me was the broadness of the language,” said state Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. “There was clearly … a broader range of potential uses for the stimulus money than what we initially thought.”

The Idaho Transportation Board will hold a meeting Tuesday to re-address its stimulus spending plans, spokesman Jeff Stratten said Friday. “The staff has been analyzing the bill and they will be making a recommendation to the transportation board,” he said.

The board’s earlier list was created under the assumption that only “shovel-ready” capital projects would be covered. However, the $181.9 million 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 road maintenance and rehabilitation work that an audit of the Idaho Transportation Department said is needed. It requires half the money to be obligated within 120 days but gives up to a year to obligate the rest.

The stimulus also could pay for a maintenance management software system for the Transportation Department, a critical missing link in the department’s planning process that was identified in the recent state-funded audit.

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

Keough said she and other lawmakers from Boundary and Bonner counties still see the Dover Bridge as a top priority for stimulus funding “because of the severity of the problem – that bridge has been slated for replacement for 10 years or more.”

Beyond that, she said, “The governor and the ITD board will have to help us figure out what the priorities are.”

The Legislature’s joint budget committee, which wrapped up a week of hearings on the stimulus Friday with an examination of transportation funds in the bill, also learned about one thing the stimulus bill can’t fund: Payoff of Idaho’s existing GARVEE bonds. The bonds are a special way of borrowing money against anticipated future federal highway allocations.

House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, had suggested using stimulus money to pay off the bonds. 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 stimulus bill divides the $181.9 million into three categories:

•$121.9 million for projects in any geographic area.

•$54.6 million allocated to areas according to population density.

•$5.5 million for “transportation enhancements,” such as pedestrian and bicycle paths.

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 – local governments wouldn’t want to acquire buses they can’t afford to run.

There’s also bad news in the stimulus bill for one Idaho community and good news for the rest, Headlee told lawmakers: Top priority for the infrastructure money goes to “economically distressed” areas, and that definition fits all of Idaho except for one community, the Sun Valley-Ketchum area.

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or bzrussell@gmail.com. For more news from Boise go to www.spokesman.com/boise.


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