In the concrete and steel of the Idaho 16 extension now being built from State Street south to Chinden Boulevard lies both potential and frustration for Treasure Valley economic development.
The 2.5-mile, $140 million project is part of a planned north-south highway from Emmett to I-84 that will spawn new industries, homes and retail shops, bringing jobs and paychecks.
But there's a problem. The biggest payoff in new development will come after Idaho 16 is extended again from Chinden south to the freeway. That dream has been deferred indefinitely.
That four-mile extension would cost an estimated $350 million. The Idaho Transportation Department doesn't have the money. With more than a half billion dollars in state and local road and bridge maintenance needs, Idaho isn't putting any more money into new construction anytime soon for the Idaho 16 extension or anything else.
"Our economy is going to be stuck in neutral unless we develop infrastructure," said Jeremy Pisca, a Boise lawyer and lobbyist working on a bill to pay for economically worthy roads ITD can't afford. One of Pisca's clients is M3, a large master planned community bordering Idaho 16 that would benefit from the fast connection to I-84.
Pisca wants the Legislature to authorize what he calls transportation and economic-development zones around new road construction in high-growth areas of the state. A portion of state sales tax revenue from sales the road made possible would be set aside to pay for it.
That could mean less sales tax revenue for the services provided by the state, cities and counties, including public schools and higher education, than would be available if growth-generated tax revenue weren't diverted to road construction. But Pisca believes the economic benefits will actually produce more tax revenue, making up for the loss.
The idea is drawing interest from lawmakers, road builders and economic developers, though even sympathetic lawmakers are withholding support until they see details. Pisca doesn't have an actual bill yet.
"I think this an idea that could work in principle," said state Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, whose district is near where Idaho 16 may connect with I-84. "It does address the funding question."
The plan has critics, too. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter said Pisca's proposal is based on a "risky funding mechanism." Bieter said improving east-west corridors like Idaho 44 (State Street) and Idaho 20/26 (Chinden Boulevard) should be a higher priority.
Pisca said a completed Idaho 16 would ease traffic on the two state highways. He said his bill could be used to pay for improvements along those highways, too.
"Blocking this legislation pushes the east-west corridor (improvements) off for yet another number of unknown years, compounding the problem as residential and commercial construction continues within that corridor," he said.
McKenzie wants to know where money would come from to pay for road maintenance on new highways in a state that can't afford to maintain the roads it has.
Pisca is reworking a bill introduced late in the 2012 session by Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, the House majority leader, whose district includes the M3 site. Pisca said he wanted the bill introduced then to give lawmakers a chance to become familiar with the concept.
Here is how it would work:
The Idaho departments of Commerce and Transportation would jointly consider areas where an enterprise zone would work. They would hire an independent economist to estimate the economic return from a zone to help make sure it would provide sufficient revenue to pay for a highway.
The proposal could leave taxpayers on the hook if too little development occurs in a zone to pay off bonds sold to finance construction. Pisca said the risk is small.
The economic zone is a "creative new financial tool," Pisca said. "(You can't) eliminate 100 percent of the risk all the time."
Even with Pisca's proposed safeguards, an economic zone could be affected by a recession like the one that struck the country at the end of 2007.
"I think if you are saying, 'It is going to be so bad that we wouldn't be able to repay this thing,' you've got a pretty dim view of what is going to happen to Idaho's economy," said John Church, a Boise economist who has done economic projections on Idaho 16.
Pisca said an Idaho 16 zone would have another benefit: taking some commuters off clogged Eagle Road.
"Constructing a controlled access corridor gives the valley a true north-south route for movement of people and goods and services," Pisca said.
Bill Roberts: 377-6408