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Lower bids benefit drivers

Mon., June 22, 2009

Surplus could fund North Idaho project

BOISE – Idaho is saving tens of millions of dollars because its big federal stimulus-funded highway projects – including the Dover Bridge in North Idaho – are coming in far under budget.

The result: Instead of just eight big projects around the state, Idaho should be able to add to its list, and a North Idaho bottleneck on U.S. Highway 95 could benefit.

“They are very competitive bids – extremely competitive,” said Jeff Stratten, spokesman for the Idaho Transportation Department.

“Contractors are eager and hungry to go to work, and their bids are reflecting it.”

The low bid for the Dover Bridge replacement project alone came in $15.2 million below the original estimate. The Vista Interchange on Interstate 84 in Boise came in a whopping $21.2 million below the estimate.

So far, five of the eight stimulus-funded projects have gone to bid, and the apparent low bids total $40.9 million less than the original estimates. There are still three more projects to go to bid in the next few weeks.

Dozens of highway projects around the state could vie for a share of the savings – including the unfunded two-mile gap at the south end of the Garwood-to-Sagle freeway project on U.S. 95. That long-planned four-lane highway will end two miles shy of the existing four-lane highway at Hayden, creating a potential two-lane, two-mile bottleneck.

An Idaho attorney general’s opinion issued this week said the state can’t use the same bond funds that are paying for the project to close the gap at the south end without specific authorization from the state Legislature. Extending the four lanes another two miles would cost about $15 million.

“There’s no reason to lose a whole construction year and leave that road unfinished,” said Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls. “You’ve got four lanes of highway, 20,000 vehicles a year are merging into two lanes – four into two with the same level of traffic. … Accidents are happening all the time.”

Henderson said he doesn’t care if the gap gets funded from bond money or stimulus money.

“Just fix the road and let’s stop killing people,” he said.

To be eligible for the stimulus money, projects must be “shovel ready,” and the Garwood gap is. But so are dozens of other projects around the state.

After all eight stimulus projects have gone to bid, the ITD staff will develop recommendations for the leftover money, and the transportation board will begin discussing which ones to pick as soon as July.

Several factors led to the lower bids, including a drop in prices for commodities such as oil, asphalt and steel worldwide since the budget estimates first were developed, and pent-up demand for work among contractors in the region due to the tough economy.

“People are out of work,” said ITD board member Jim Coleman. “They’re going after these projects pretty hard – it’s good for the economy and it’s good for Idaho.”

For the Dover Bridge replacement, the ITD received five bids, all from contractors in the region. The lowest was $21.6 million from Sletten Construction of Great Falls. All five were far below the $36.8 million budget.

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