BOISE - Idaho’s new 80 mph speed limit law specifically requires that the state Transportation Board approve any speed limit boosts under the new law – the bill repeated that requirement four times – but the board delegated the matter to its staff and hadn’t planned to review the changes.
Then, after the department announced that an array of southern Idaho freeway routes would go to 80 mph on July 1 and changes to North Idaho routes were being studied, it heard concerns from the public and changed course. Now, the board will review the proposed higher speeds in southern Idaho at its regular meeting tomorrow in Coeur d’Alene.
Board members and department officials say they don’t think they violated the new law.
“I guess it might be kind of a gray area,” said Idaho Transportation Department Director Brian Ness.
ITD Board Chairman Jerry Whitehead said, “The board delegates a lot of things. However, we’re going to have a review of that whole thing” at the board meeting.
Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, author of the new law, said he intended the board’s review to allow for public input. But Whitehead says he sees little need for public input, as the department’s speed studies provide that by documenting the speeds drivers are going on the routes now.
“If the traffic is already going 80 mph … then it’s probably a no-brainer,” Whitehead said. “I don’t know as we need public input.”
Davis said he’s not criticizing the department; he didn’t realize the board had delegated speed limit setting to staff. “I believed that I was following the pattern of the past, and that is to say to the department, ‘Use your good judgment, use your good skills and make a recommendation to the board,’ and then the board set those numbers.”
Said Davis, “I honestly thought that I was going to get two good sets of eyes that would look at the issue: Skilled professionals, and then as well the board. And so that’s the reason the bill is written the way that it is.”
The measure, SB 1284, passed the Senate 30-4 and the House 34-31; Gov. Butch Otter signed it into law on March 18. Four times in the bill, it says the new higher speeds – up to 80 mph on routes that now are limited to 75 mph, and up to 70 on highways that now are limited to 65 – may be set “if the department completes an engineering and traffic study … and concludes that the increase is in the public interest and the transportation board concurs with such conclusion.”
Whitehead said, “The board probably should concur, if that’s what the law says.” He said, “I personally haven’t looked at it since it came out of the Legislature.”
Blake Rindlisbacher, head of engineering services for ITD, said, “The board has delegated speed limits to the department.” Board members didn’t want to be bothered with every decision about limits for certain stretches of road, he said. “They’ve said, ‘We want you to take care of that.’”
But that was before the new law passed; it took effect July 1.
Ness said, “I guess it’s a little gray – does that delegation kind of spill over when we go to the new law?” He added, “I would not think the board violated any law whatsoever, because you could probably interpret that delegation a number of ways.”
Whitehead said the question of whether future speed limit boosts under the new law should be reviewed by the board before taking effect – including possible increases on I-90 in North Idaho, from the current 70 mph to 75 from Stateline to Coeur d’Alene and from the current 65 mph to 70 from roughly Kellogg to Wallace, depending on the outcome of speed studies – will be discussed at Friday’s meeting.
The public comments ITD received after announcing its initial decision to boost southern Idaho routes to 80 included concerns from the AAA of Idaho about whether safety questions on the routes had been adequately analyzed; questions from the Idaho Trucking Association about the impact of differential speeds when commercial trucks that have speed regulators continue to travel 65 mph; and supportive comments from the National Motorists Association, a group first formed to advocate against the national 55 mph speed limit.
Davis said when he argued for the bill in the Legislature this year, he assured fellow lawmakers that the bill allowed for public input, because of the board review. “I believed that we had put together a path where stakeholders could give their input,” he said. “I told them I thought we had that in the bill. I thought we had it there.”
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