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News >  Idaho

Bush budget seen as plus for state roads

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

BOISE – Idaho would get more federal highway money than state officials anticipated under President Bush’s proposed budget, lawmakers were told Friday.

“It will support and sustain a GARVEE bonding program – that’s the good news with the president’s budget,” said Idaho Transportation Director Dave Ekern.

GARVEE bonds are a special type of bonds Gov. Dirk Kempthorne hopes to use to finance a $1.6 billion, statewide highway construction program. They allow states to borrow against their future federal highway payments, so they can do more work up-front. The governor’s plan includes major upgrades to U.S. Highway 95, along with other projects around the state.

Lawmakers were skeptical, however, and said there’s no guarantee federal funds will continue to increase. “I have concerns with the reliability of the money,” said Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, who said he hasn’t made up his mind yet about the bonding idea.

Ekern told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee that in planning for the bonding project, state officials estimated federal payments to Idaho would rise by about 3.3 percent a year in future years, though in the last 14 years, they’ve gone up an average of 6.1 percent.

President Bush’s budget, if enacted, would give Idaho a 5 to 6 percent average increase each year for the next six years, Ekern said.

“That allows us to maintain the GARVEE program, plus have additional federal dollars for other projects,” he said.

Eskridge said that in his work with a national energy group, he recently learned that the federal government could penalize a state by withholding highway funds if a state violated international trade agreements.

“How vulnerable are the states to losing transportation funds (for) either an inability to follow federal philosophies or directions, or other activities that put the state into opposition with the feds?” Eskridge asked Ekern.

Ekern said that’s possible, but very rare. He said he recalled just one instance in his 35-year career in which a state had federal funds withheld. However, he noted that it’s theoretically possible. For example, if Idaho doesn’t pass pending legislation this year to comply with new federal requirements for commercial driver’s licenses, it could face a $6.6 million penalty next year, and $13.2 million each year thereafter.

The questions came as Ekern made his annual budget presentation to lawmakers. Unlike most state departments, the Idaho Transportation Department uses no state general tax funds. But lawmakers still approve its spending plans for a combination of federal funds and money that is directed to transportation uses from the state gas tax, registration fees and other sources.

Idaho now has 275,300 registered vehicles, Ekern told lawmakers, up 30 percent since 1990. It’s seen a 34 percent increase in licensed drivers in the same time period, a 45 percent increase in gallons of fuel used and a 47 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled.

Three-quarters of ITD’s budget is spent on routine maintenance and personnel, Ekern said. “That maintains the roads that we have,” he said.

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, questioned the administration’s focus on major improvements for major roads. He asked how many of Idaho’s 293 fatal accidents in 2003 and 261 in 2004 were “actually fatalities because of the highways? A number are drunk drivers or people falling asleep,” he said.

Ekern replied that many factors contribute to fatal accidents, but, “We’re finding that a majority of the fatalities that occur are on rural, two-lane roads that are our unsafest roads.” That’s why the governor’s plan focuses on upgrading heavily traveled two-lane routes to four-lane highways, he said.

Harwood said major routes like Highway 95 “seem to get a lot of good attention. … A lot of our deaths are on them secondary roads. They are traveled an awful lot.”

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