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Local opinion columnists

Clock ticking on major road projects

By From page A10 | January 20, 2013

One of the stark contrasts I have seen between California and Idaho is the speed in which road projects seem to reach completion here in the Gem State compared to the Golden State.

Road and intersection widening projects, complete with new signalization, seem to be done within weeks, not months or years. A major widening of Interstate 84 both in downtown Boise and several miles west in Nampa were completed in less than two years. And an entirely new, very large interchange in Meridian – Ten Mile Road – was built and opened in just more than one year’s time.

Similar projects in California seem to linger for years. Perhaps I was closer to some of the California projects because I worked at the newspaper and we were there at the outset – planning, funding and ultimately, construction.

The real test will come during the next few years because a major north-south expressway through the Treasure Valley has now been proposed. Funding, acquisition of rights of way and construction must follow. It will be interesting to see if this roughly five-mile stretch of highway that will include a Boise River crossing and connect seven cities in three counties will get the necessary funding and be built in the timetable suggested.

Compare that with the rebuilding of the Interstates 80-680 interchange, which has been on the books for at least a decade and is still waiting for some of the funding for the earliest phases – rebuilding the Green Valley interchange and connections to Highway 12/Jameson Canyon. On a positive note, the nearly $100 million truck scales project along I-80 is under construction and should be completed later this year.

It’s anyone’s guess when the major I-80, I-680 interchange will be relocated and built.

No absolute price tag has been placed on the Boise area expressway, but those proposing the project believe it will generate $4.2 billion in positive economic impact over a 25-year span and create more than 30,000 jobs. There is no question that another alternate north-south connector is needed because the major north-south route, Highway 55, is congested with a combination of commuters and shoppers.

Regional planners chose to widen Eagle Road and dubbed it the Highway 55 north-south expressway more than 10 years ago. But so much retail/commercial growth sprang up along the corridor that the early 55-mph speed limit has slowly been replaced with 45 mph and lots of signals and access points. It hardly is an expressway today.

The newly proposed roadway is about five miles west of the Highway 55/Eagle Road route and would connect Interstate 84 to existing Highway 16, which runs north to Emmett. It will cross two state routes that ultimately will link the roads to the cities of Nampa, Caldwell, Meridian, Eagle, Star, Middleton and Emmett.

The roadway would traverse mostly open farm land and rights of way could include some pretty wide intersections and limit access points. Proponents do want to avoid some of the pitfalls that have spoiled the Highway 55 express route.

That won’t discourage planners from adding commercial zoning along the route. Part of the huge economic impact is the expectation that growth adjacent to the roadway will indeed pay for the improvements. Population in the region is expected to grow from the current 600,000 to more than 1 million, necessitating the major infrastructure addition.

The funding mechanism suggested is called a Transportation Economic Development Zone, something different from the common Grant Application Revenue Vehicle or GARVEE method used for most Idaho projects. Under GARVEE, money is borrowed from a fund that is reimbursed from future federal road tax revenues. Under the TEDZ, sales taxes from future growth will replenish the borrowed funds.

It will take a vote of the Idaho state legislature to approve the TEDZ and it may face some opposition because a couple of the taxing districts – parts of Nampa and Middleton – could lose some important tax funding.

Proponents believe the road could be under construction within two years if the TEDZ is given the green light in the legislature. I’ll keep my eyes open on this one. Could the Treasure Valley go from proposal to completion in that quick blink of an eye while Solano residents wait decades to see an important interchange continued to be kicked down the highway because of myriad planning, funding and environmental concerns?

The clock is ticking.

Bill James is a former editor and publisher of the Daily Republic, now living in Meridian, a suburb of Boise, Idaho.

Bill James


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