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Eye on Boise: Highway projects’ payoff called ‘dramatic’

BOISE – From 2007 to 2012, traffic crashes in Idaho dropped by 18 percent, according to research by Scott Stokes, deputy director of the Idaho Transportation Department, while fatalities and serious injuries on Idaho’s roads fell 25 percent. “That is saving the lives of approximately 80 people per year,” Stokes told lawmakers last week in presentations to both the House and Senate transportation committees.

But the numbers are even more pronounced for the corridors Idaho targeted in recent years for major highway upgrades through the use of special GARVEE bonds that allowed the state to borrow against its future federal transportation allocations.

In the Garwood-to-Sagle corridor on U.S. Highway 95 in North Idaho, between state Highway 53 and Ohio Match Road, crashes fell 25 percent in the three years after construction, compared to the three years before, Stokes found, even as traffic volumes went up by more than 10 percent.

At another major construction project south of Coeur d’Alene on U.S. 95, Worley-to-Setters, crashes fell by 72 percent – even as traffic volumes went up 36 percent from 2007 to 2012.

“It is clear that when we invest in safety, the return on the investment is dramatic,” Stokes told lawmakers.

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, a former ITD board chairman, noted that the GARVEE projects, pushed by then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne in his “Connecting Idaho” program, were controversial. “One of the key things was safety and trying to reduce fatalities,” Winder said. “I just wanted to say … seeing the reductions in fatal crashes makes all of the criticism I’ve taken about GARVEE over the years more than worth it.”

Stokes, who also documented big drops in crashes around Southern Idaho GARVEE projects, said, “This is something that I’ve been interested in since my days in Coeur d’Alene.” He long served as ITD’s district engineer in Coeur d’Alene before becoming the department’s deputy director in 2007. “I’d always ask my engineers: I want to see before and after on our projects.”

No ‘Add the Words’ legislation hearing

Backers of the “Add the Words” legislation, to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act’s ban on discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, announced Friday that GOP leaders in both houses have informed them there will be no hearings on the bill this year. Activists vowed to “use all permissible procedures in this Legislature” to try to advance the bill this year anyway.

“We also call on the people of Idaho to contact their legislators on this important issue,” said Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, co-sponsor of the bill with Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise.

The legislation has been proposed for eight consecutive years but never has gotten a hearing.

Idaho’s Human Rights Act currently bans discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, religion, age or disability. At least seven Idaho cities, including Sandpoint, Moscow and Coeur d’Alene, have enacted local ordinances to extend those protections to gays. Last June, the Idaho Republican Party state central committee passed a resolution calling on the Legislature to pass a law invalidating such local ordinances.

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said the current federal lawsuit challenging Idaho’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is the reason he believes this year is not the time for a hearing on the bill. “Why do they want to float something that has no chance of getting through, when after the lawsuit, it might have a chance?” Hill asked. “Let’s see what the courts say. By next session, we will have at least an initial ruling.”

Hill said he understands that there’s a difference between the two issues but said the outcome of the court case could change the environment of the debate. If courts overturn Idaho’s gay marriage ban, Hill said, “I think there’s going to be a much different attitude towards the housing and employment.”

Musical interlude …

As part of his budget presentation to lawmakers, state schools Superintendent Tom Luna played a video clip featuring Cathyanne Nonini, a violin teacher and wife of Sen. Bob Nonini (and his substitute in the Senate for the first two weeks of this year’s session), demonstrating a new technology tool: a computer program through which students can play a line of music, and then the program will tell them where they’ve made mistakes. In the clip, Nonini purposely played wrong notes the first time, then played the piece correctly the second time, demonstrating the different reports on the computer screen.

As the clip started, seated in the audience, she squirmed at the wrong notes, muttering, “This is terrible.” But in the second part of the video, with the right notes, she played longer; lawmakers noticeably relaxed, welcoming the musical interlude.

Staff writer Betsy Z. Russell can be reached at or (208) 336-2854.

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