The Idaho Transportation Department has spent nearly $500 million since 2007 improving a 24-mile stretch of Interstate 84 through Ada County and a small portion of Canyon County.
When construction finishes in the spring, motorists will appreciate the improvements: eight of nine interchanges rebuilt or improved, one new interchange and at least four lanes in each direction between Broadway Avenue in Boise and Garrity Boulevard in Nampa.
But when drivers venture west of Nampa’s Franklin Boulevard exit, they are in for a rough ride: The road suddenly changes from a smooth-sailing wide freeway to a narrow, two-lane road with ruts and cracks.
“The stretch of highway between Caldwell and Nampa is atrocious, “ said Caldwell Mayor Garrett Nancolas. “There is not another word for it. It is simply atrocious.”
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ITD’s recent five-year, $288.4 million to-do list of transportation projects in Ada and Canyon counties included $12.6 million in 2019 to restore the eight-mile I-84 stretch between Franklin Boulevard (Exit 36) in Nampa and Franklin Road (Exit 29) in Caldwell.
But last week, the state transportation agency pulled the project off the table for two reasons: It ran out of money and the road repair turned out to be more costly than anticipated. ITD had to find $8 million in savings from its pavement-restoration budget.
“The I-84 restoration project was originally planned for modest pavement improvements, “ said ITD spokesman Reed Hollinshead. “However, this would not address the in-depth reconstruction efforts required, nor would they address the issue of freeway widening for greater traffic capacity.”
ITD could not provide an estimate for the repair and widening.
The project “remains a priority” and the agency will keep looking for ways to repair and expand the freeway, he said.
“This particular project would be challenging to fit in our transportation improvement program in any year given our current revenue, “ Hollinshead said.
Nampa and Caldwell’s mayors are disappointed.
“The plan to improve the freeway from Caldwell to Boise has been promised for years. We need that third lane to keep traffic moving through Nampa and westward into Caldwell, “ said Nampa Mayor Bob Henry.
“It doesn’t speak very well for the state, the county or the Valley to have that kind of road with the ruts and very severe cracks, “ Caldwell’s Nancolas said. “All the tourists and the trucks moving goods - it doesn’t send the right message about Idaho.”
The Idaho Legislature in 2005 approved a plan to send the right message about Idaho’s roads by green-lighting Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s Connecting Idaho plan, which called for more than $1 billion in road projects across the state.
The 2006 bill Kempthorne signed authorized the sale of $1.2 billion in bonds — which lawmakers later pared to $998 million and then to $857 million.
GARVEE — which stands for “grant anticipation revenue vehicle” — bonds allowed Idaho to borrow money for road projects and repay it with future federal highway payments.
According to ITD’s 2013 GARVEE report, about 60 percent of the bond money has been spent on two Treasure Valley corridors - Interstate 84 and the new Idaho 16 extension. The 30-plus projects never included repairing or widening the freeway between Nampa and Caldwell.
ITD has committed the last of its GARVEE money. It now must find other ways to pay for transportation projects.
Caldwell Rep. Brandon Hixon, who is running for re-election, said he is surprised and concerned that ITD pulled the project. He wants to see lawmakers get enough money for the project next session.
“I think it is imperative we get that stretch fixed, “ said Hixon, a Republican who serves on the House Transportation Committee. “It is just a horrible stretch. It really is a safety issue.”
He said the committee received “no guarantees, “ but he assumed the project would get completed to west of Caldwell.
As an interstate, intercounty and intercity connector, the project “needs to take precedent over some of the smaller projects, “ he said.
Nampa’s mayor agrees. Henry said ITD should shift lower-priority items back one year to free up money to improve the freeway, which he described as the lifeblood of the Treasure Valley.
ITD receives nearly all of its funding from a state gas tax and the federal government. Hixon said he’s not sure he supports increasing the state gas tax, but would explore using general fund money for the state’s transportation needs. He also cited a 2010 study commissioned by ITD and Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation task force that showed cars pay 47 percent more than their share of the wear and tear on Idaho roads, while heavy trucks pay 33 percent less than their share.
Nearly 40 percent of the state’s 1.6 million population lives in Ada and Canyon counties, home to 416,464 and 198,871 people, respectively. I-84 is also the main thoroughfare between Portland and Salt Lake City, Nancolas said.
The freeway’s poor condition “affects us from many angles, “ said Nancolas. He said he “constantly” hears from community members complaining about the roadway’s condition. He said safety and congestion aren’t the only issues.
“It has even become an economic development issue. We are trying to recruit businesses to Exit 29 and they need to bring trucks in to move their product, and this is what they see, “ he said.
“You get past Nampa and we get forgotten.”