BOISE - Gov. Butch Otter and North Idaho lawmakers both expressed concern Thursday after Idaho’s transportation board knocked the replacement of the deteriorated Dover Bridge off the top of a list of priorities for spending federal stimulus funds.
The board decided instead to spread the anticipated money to other projects around the state, in part because North Idaho already is getting lots of transportation funds as the long-planned Sandpoint Bypass construction starts.
“I’m just astounded,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. “I think it’s breathtaking that they would take the worst bridge in the state and one of the top 10 in the country (and treat it) in the manner they did. It’s a pretty important issue for my district.”
Darrell Manning, chairman of the board, said the board’s staff recommendation placed the Dover Bridge and a Twin Falls project as top priorities, followed by seven others. But the first two, with their high price tags, would have taken up all the money that might be coming - about $90 million. “The board wanted to spread the stimulus around to more than two locations of the state,” Manning said.
So it backed the Twin Falls project and five of the six second-tier recommendations instead. The sixth, reconstruction of the Vista Interchange on I-84 in Boise, was crossed off because the Boise area is seeing other bond-funded construction along I-84.
“I disagree with that philosophy,” Otter said Thursday. “I think the money should go, No. 1, where are we killing people, where are we having accidents, where do we have safety and health problems. That’s where it ought to go. And the Dover Bridge has already been reduced three times in its weight capacity.”
The bridge on U.S. Highway 2 in North Idaho has height and weight restrictions and a lowered speed limit because of its condition. In May, Popular Mechanics Magazine included it in its list of the “10 pieces of U.S. infrastructure we must fix now,” along with the Brooklyn Bridge, O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and the Sacramento River levies.
The magazine noted that a big chunk of the 71-year-old bridge had fallen onto the railroad tracks below, leaving a gaping hole. The state replaced more than half of the bridge deck in August of 2007 in response.
The governor stopped short of saying he’d try to reverse the ITD board’s decision, saying, “I have to listen to their justification for what was done” and confer with legislative transportation committee chairmen.
But he declared, “I say, No. 1, where the money should go (is) where we’re having safety problems for the citizens. Second place is where can we relieve congestion, because I believe if you relieve congestion you can encourage economic activity.”
He added, “The real tragedy of that is when we first started talking about the Dover Bridge, we could’ve rebuilt it for $8 million bucks.” The project is now estimated at $40 million.
Otter said the Dover Bridge is “about ready to fall down,” though ITD says it’s safe for now, though substandard and a priority for replacement.
Manning said, “I know it remains a very high priority among board members.”
Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, who long has campaigned for replacing the bridge, said the Sandpoint Bypass is a long-delayed project with “special earmarked funding” secured by then-Rep. Helen Chenoweth and Sen. Larry Craig. “So we’re not taking anything away from anybody else,” he said. “This project should’ve been done a long time ago. Now to penalize us, to take away another needed project on the basis that we’ve already got this one, I think is being unfair.”
The ITD board did designate the Dover Bridge as the next project to be funded if stimulus money comes in at a higher level than estimated, and Manning said there’s a good likelihood of that. “The board did direct staff to review the Dover Bridge plans and be prepared to bid those, in the event that additional funds were received,” he said.
The ITD board picked six projects statewide, including improvements to Highway 95 in the Moscow area, a new chain-up area at the Whitebird grade near Grangeville, and road projects in Pocatello, Twin Falls and eastern Idaho, but pushed down the Dover Bridge project and included nothing in the state’s most populous area, the Treasure Valley area around Boise.
Keough said, “I think the regionalism is getting worse. They’re asking taxpayers to pay more - in districts like mine, taxpayers are going to say, ‘For what?’”
She said North Idaho has seen significant investments in roads recently, but only to catch up on long-neglected safety and congestion problems with the region’s roads. “Then they take a safety issue like the Dover Bridge off the list, and want us to throw ourselves on the sword and vote for a tax increase.”
Eskridge said North Idaho needs the bridge replacement both for safety and for economic stimulus, with mill shutdowns idling hundreds of workers. “We’ve got severe economic problems up here too,” he said.