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Eye on Boise: ITD picks road projects funded by tax, fee increases

The Idaho Transportation Board has selected 27 projects, totaling $46.8 million, to complete in 2016 with funding from the recently approved gas tax and registration fee increases.

All involve either bridge or pavement restoration or preservation; in North Idaho, they include $10.7 million worth of pavement restoration on Highway 95 in Benewah County, plus $1.1 million in bridge deck repairs or replacements throughout the Panhandle.

“We are now accelerating critical projects more rapidly from the long list of needs,” said ITD Board Chairman Jerry Whitehead. “This is an important beginning to preserve our system by replacing and preserving our bridges, as well as our pavements, and keeping Idaho’s economy and citizens moving.”

But that’s not all the additional money Idaho will be spending on transportation in the coming year. The transportation funding bill that Idaho lawmakers approved on the final day of this year’s regular legislative session, HB 314A, raises $95 million a year, aimed at cutting into the state’s $262 million annual road and bridge maintenance backlog.  That includes $63.2 million from a 7-cent increase in Idaho’s 25-cent per gallon gas tax effective July 1; $26.8 million from increased registration fees on cars and light trucks; $3.5 million from fees on commercial trucks; and $641,000 from new fees on electric and hybrid cars of $140 on electric cars and $75 on hybrids.

The bill also includes a “surplus eliminator” that would provide additional funding for road work if state revenues come in higher than expected; at this point, that’s exactly what they’re doing. As of the latest reports, Idaho’s budget surplus was sitting at $91.8 million at the end of April. State general fund tax revenue to date is up 7.8 percent over last year, compared to the forecasted 5.3 percent; if May and June don’t exceed forecasts at all, revenue growth would rise to 8.5 percent by the end of the fiscal year, and recent economic news points to stronger growth.

That means there could still be another $45 million or more left for transportation, after paying $18 million in deficiency warrants, mainly for fire suppression costs, and depositing $28.2 million in the state’s main rainy-day savings account. Lawmakers will consider that next January as a supplemental appropriation when they convene for their 2016 session.

The “surplus eliminator” bill splits uncommitted surpluses 50-50 between the rainy-day fund and transportation; that means another $45 million also would go into savings, for a total deposit next year of a whopping $72.8 million.

ITD selected the first batch of road and bridge projects from among those already listed on its five-year plan, but slated for future years. “We commend ITD engineers and staff for the quick response on making these projects ready for construction,” said ITD Director Brian Ness. “Organizational changes have made possible the advancement of these critical projects.”

In north-central Idaho, the projects include $784,000 worth of pavement restoration on Highway 95 in Idaho County, plus $2.2 million worth of bridge repairs and deck replacements. Every region of the state is slated for a batch of the projects.

Parents’ guide available

An Idaho nonprofit funded by the Albertson Foundation has released a free bilingual “Parents’ Guide to Idaho’s School and Learning Choices,” available in both Spanish and English.

“All Idaho parents, regardless of their native language, should have access to information about the growing choices available to their children so they can make the best decisions possible about what learning opportunities are best for their sons and daughters,” said Terry Ryan, CEO of Bluum. The guide is online at bluum.org/parents-guide.

Bluum is an organization that works for school innovation, including bringing new, high-quality school models to Idaho and providing training and support for Idaho educators with innovative approaches.

The new guide, which has been in the works for months, was released shortly after a civil rights complaint was filed by another organization, charging that minorities and students with limited English skills are under-represented in Idaho’s public charter schools, and calling for, among other measures, more outreach to Hispanic families to let them know about charter school options.