Idaho governor signs highway bill

| Friday, April 15, 2005

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne is making his way around Idaho signing into law his plan to borrow money for $1.6 billion to improve and expand highways in the state.

The agreement between lawmakers and the governor changes the way Idaho has traditionally financed its road building.

Dubbed “Connecting Idaho,” the massive highway plan is intended to provide funding for state highways over the next decade, instead of a quarter century.

The new law, previously SB1183, allows Idaho to fund a sweeping highway plan with grant-anticipated revenue vehicle bonds, or GARVEE bonds.

The funding program allows the state to borrow money against the federal transportation dollars that come each year to pay for construction. The sale is based on the assumption that federal funding in future years would pay off the bonds. This allows the state to get money needed for the project up front.

Kempthorne said Thursday, April 14, that the plan has long been a goal of his.

However, his dream nearly fell short of realization.

The governor vetoed several bills two weeks ago in retaliation against House Transportation Committee members who were blocking the effort.

Lawmakers ultimately compromised on the percentage of federal funds to be used to pay off the bonds. During the next four years, the state’s annual spending will be limited to 20 percent of all federal fuel tax money being routed to the 13 proposed road projects sought by Kempthorne. In year five, the cap would increase to 30 percent. Beyond that, the Legislature would be required to vote again to increase the percentage.

The new law also gives the Idaho Transportation Department wiggle room to decide which projects to build. The original version offered by the governor provided a list of 13 specific projects.

Idaho Transportation Board Chairman Chuck Winder told the Idaho Statesman he expects state transportation planners will outline this summer how they’ll use the new funding source for highway projects throughout the state. Actual construction could be as long as two years away, he said.

Two projects expected to be included are making U.S. 95 into a four-lane, divided highway, as well as extending U.S. 20 from Idaho Falls to Ashton.