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ITD’s eminent domain battles with North Idaho landowners run up big tab, land in court…

Alan Johnson’s company lost 16.3 acres of prime property along U.S. 95 in North Idaho when the state seized it for a new interchange under eminent domain law.  Now the shopping center developer stands to lose another $1.1 million, which is how much the state paid an outside law firm to wrangle over reimbursement for the property – because the state wants Johnson’s company to pay the legal fees the Idaho Transportation Department incurred in trying to seize the land. Johnson calls the tactic “completely unconstitutional,” a sentiment echoed by his lawyer, who said the episode is a “perversion” of law.

The case, now pending before the Idaho Supreme Court, is raising questions about Idaho’s use of eminent domain; a local legislator, Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, says Idaho needs to change its laws. Meanwhile, the shopping center site – slated for the Athol area’s first major grocery store – stands vacant as the multi-year court fight continues.  “I’ve never encountered anything like this,” said Johnson. “All we’re trying to do is get the fair market value for what the property was, to get the access to the site after it’s done, and to make sure that our utility issues were taken care of,” he said, adding, “For every dollar we spend in attorney fees, the state spends about $3 or $4. … There’s got to be an easier way to do this.”

ITD has spent $2.1 million and counting on legal fees to an outside firm to battle over prices for seized property along the Garwood-to-Sagle project on Highway 95. Another property owner, Dee Jameson, had his own year-plus legal fight with the state, after which the state’s legal bills added up to nearly as much as it agreed to pay Jameson. “I don’t think they gained any ground by their strategy,” said Jameson, a past president of the Idaho Association of Realtors. He said the long fight over the price was “a total waste of the state’s time and money, in my opinion.” You can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

ITD taps stimulus to eliminate Highway 95 bottleneck at Garwood

The big Garwood-to-Sagle freeway project on U.S. Highway 95 in North Idaho won’t have a two-lane bottleneck at its south end after all, the Idaho Transportation Board decided today. The board designated $15.8 million in economic stimulus funds toward expanding the stretch from Wyoming Avenue in Hayden to the Idaho 53 junction to four lanes; the money will come from savings after bids on other stimulus projects came in lower than expected. The Dover Bridge replacement alone came in $15.2 million below estimates; a freeway interchange in Boise came in $21.2 million low.

The highway already is four lanes south of Wyoming Avenue. But plans for the new freeway left a two-mile gap; legislation to fix that this year got shot down in last-minute scuffling between the House and Senate. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said, “Funneling traffic from four lanes to two lanes in this short section creates a real safety risk that needs to be eliminated.” He said, “Designating some of the savings from stimulus projects to this heavily traveled segment of U.S. 95 makes good sense.”

Low bids on highway projects are saving millions for Idaho

Idaho is saving tens of millions because construction bids on its big federal stimulus-funded highway projects - including the Dover Bridge in North Idaho and the Vista Interchange in Boise - are coming in so far under budget. The result: Instead of just the eight big projects around the state that are planned, 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.” Said ITD board member Jim Coleman, “We’re getting five or six bids in places that we would get one or two before.”

The low bid for the Dover Bridge replacement project alone came in $15.2 million below the original budget estimate. The Vista Interchange on I-84 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 two-mile gap that’s been left unfunded at the south end of the Garwood-to-Sagle freeway project on U.S. Highway 95 in North Idaho. 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.

“Believe me, when somebody finds out we have some money that hasn’t been allocated, there will be projects that people will want,” said Darrell Manning, chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board. “They’re all good projects, they’re all needed projects.” When the board first looked at candidates for stimulus funding, he said, “We had $800 million worth of projects.” After all eight stimulus projects have gone to bid, the ITD staff will develop a recommendation on candidates 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 like 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. For the Dover Bridge replacement, ITD received five bids, all from contractors in the region. The lowest was $21.6 million from Sletten Construction of Great Falls, Mont.; the highest was $23.6 million from another Great Falls firm. All five were far below the $36.8 million budget. For the Vista Interchange, ITD received six bids, with the lowest, $17.8 million, from Central Paving Co. of Boise. The highest was $21.2 million from Idaho Sand and Gravel of Nampa; all six were far below the budget of $39 million. You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

North Idaho freeway could include bottleneck

When the big Garwood-to-Sagle freeway project on Highway 95 in North Idaho is completed, it may have a two-mile, two-lane bottleneck at its southern end before it reaches an existing four-lane highway at Hayden. The Idaho Transportation Board today reviewed an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion that found that the board can’t adjust the project’s southern boundary without specific authorization from the state Legislature. Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, proposed such legislation this year, but it died at the last minute in an end-of-session tiff between the House and the Senate.

Darrell Manning, ITD board chairman, said the board wants to expand the project to “what we all thought was the original terminus, but the law didn’t say that.” Said board member Bruce Sweeney, “This whole thing is crazy to start with - that’s where that whole project should’ve started in the first place.” ITD board member Gary Blick said the issue shows the danger of letting political pressure from the Legislature influence the state transportation board. “If our highway (system) becomes a political plum, we could have these kinds of things all over the state,” he said. “The professionals agree that it should be done, and the Legislature doesn’t.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.