State Politics

Idaho roads about to get $94.5 million. What will that look like?

Ustick Road, from Meridian to nearly Locust Grove roads, would be widened to five lanes with curbs, gutters, sidewalks and bike lanes. That's on the list of road and bridge maintenance projects that might get funded under new money approved this year by the Idaho Legislature.
Ustick Road, from Meridian to nearly Locust Grove roads, would be widened to five lanes with curbs, gutters, sidewalks and bike lanes. That's on the list of road and bridge maintenance projects that might get funded under new money approved this year by the Idaho Legislature. kjones@idahostatesman.com

For the South Latah Highway District, it could mean an additional $193,000, a return to its routine seven-year cycle of chip-sealing 42 miles of paved roads and full annual replenishment of gravel on its 200 miles of unpaved roads.

In Shoshone County, it could mean $311,000 more for work on the Silver Bridge over the north fork of the Coeur D’Alene River in Kingston, the Big Creek bridge on Country Club Road in Osburn, and the Moon Pass Road bridge over Champion Creek in Wallace. Fourteen of 77 county bridges are in critical need of repair or replacement.

For the Homedale Highway District in Owyhee County, it could mean $131,000, possibly to repave sections of Johnstone and Cemetery roads. In 2012, two miles of those roads were ground back into gravel to save on maintenance costs.

And in Ada County, the most populous and heavily traveled county in the state, the highway district that tends to more than 2,100 miles of roads in Boise, Eagle, Garden City, Kuna, Meridian and Star could see up to $6.5 million in new money for work. That could include replacing sections of Cloverdale Road, Ustick Road and the Victory Road bridge east of Locust Grove Road.

“We think we have somewhere between $12 million to $14 million in projects that potentially could qualify for the funding,” said ACHD spokesman Craig Quintana. “They are not truly shovel-ready, but the shovel is in the back of the pickup.”

The state Legislature, on its final day April 10, worked out a compromise plan to draw new funds from higher fuel taxes and registration fees. On July 1, the state tax on gasoline and diesel will rise from 25 cents to 32 cents a gallon. Annual registration fees for most cars will go up by $21, and $25 for commercial trucks. Electric vehicles will pay $140 a year and hybrids $75. A new tax will be charged on gaseous fuels such as liquefied natural gas.

The new money will get split 60 / 40 between the state Department of Transportation and nearly 300 local jurisdictions — 64 highway districts, 33 counties and 197 cities. The local allotments are based on miles of paved roads and number of registered vehicles in each jurisdiction.

Overall, the state Transportation Department will receive about $47.6 million the first year — less than 60 percent, due to a start-up lag. Starting next year, its take will be about $55.3 million.

Local governments will get 30 to 37 percent more than they’ve been getting in past years. Cities will get about $11.3 million; counties about $12.6 million; and highway districts $13.8 million.

The total infusion is a little more than one-third of the $262 million estimate of the amount Idaho needs annually to keep its network of 76,000 lane miles of roads and more than 4,000 bridges from getting worse. It’s one-sixth of the total annual road price tag of $543 million.

‘A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION’

But check with highway administrators and no one’s complaining. The districts have cut maintenance to the very bare bones as inflation and better fuel efficiency have meant less and less funding for roads.

In 1996, the last time the gas tax was raised, South Latah paid $7,000 a mile to chip-seal a two-lane road. Last year, it paid more than $26,000 a mile. Similarly, gravel in 1996 cost the district $3.60 a ton. Now it’s $5.80. It takes about 68 tons of gravel — $395 — to cover a mile of a two-lane road.

With $193,000 more per year, South Latah could do the six to seven miles of annual chip-sealing that its normal maintenance schedule calls for, and have the $120,000 it needs annually to restore its gravel roads. But the $100,000 it used to spend on treating unpaved roads with magnesium chloride to keep the dust down isn’t coming back yet.

“We’ve been scraping to get by with what we’ve got,” said Kevin Renfrow, chairman of the South Latah district. “That money is going to help us a lot. It’s not going to solve all the problems, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Besides grinding asphalt into gravel to save paving costs, Homedale has had to fill potholes with gravel alone.

“It’s a real tough world out here,” said Homedale Director of Highways Stewart Constantine, who oversees 92 miles of roads. The new money “is a great start — that’s what I can say.”

‘DIRE NEEDS’

Federal matches will stretch dollars for some projects. But in timber-heavy counties such as Shoshone, federal dollars from timber sales dried up long ago, and the Secure Rural Schools program that replaced timber dollars was almost scuttled this year. The county received about $1.2 million from rural schools program last year; 78 percent of the county is federal land.

“So we have 22 percent of the land that is taxable,” said Shoshone County Public Works Director Forrest Greenfield. “Without that money, I’m not sure how the schools or the county will operate.”

Of the county’s 377 miles of roads, 281 miles are paved.

“We are in dire need of help,” Greenfield said. “We have several bridges that are in dire need of repairs. Some of them we can’t afford to fix. We have a list of priorities a mile long.”

Though the new taxes kick in July 1, don’t expect a windfall to arrive this summer. The new revenue won’t be distributed until after Oct. 1, which is the start of the fiscal year for highway districts. And with money coming that late in the year, most dollars won’t make their way into projects until the new construction season begins in spring. The timing of funding also might require additional authorization from the state when the Legislature meets in January.

Finally, the average motorist might not really notice the changes. As defined by statute, the new funds are to be used for routine, if neglected, maintenance.

“In the long run, I bet the public will not notice,” said Homedale’s Constantine.

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