Bruised Egos 

Political leaders accuse ITD of spiting governor with Garvee bond delay

When the Idaho Transportation Board moved to table approval of hundreds of millions-worth of federal Garvee bonds on Nov. 14, some saw it as more than just an ordinary bureaucratic procedure.

Some saw it as a political thumb-in-the-eye after Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter took the Idaho Transportation Department to task for not showing financial accountability in a more timely manner.

"I am extremely disappointed by the board's decision not to act on Garvee," said Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell. "The longer we wait, the more this costs the taxpayers.

"The 40 percent of Canyon County residents who are coming in to work in Boise every day aren't concerned about petty politics. They want their road fixed. They don't care if the board was offended by the governor's comments, they want the ruts out of the freeway."

The Transportation Board was scheduled to vote on whether to approve putting the bonds up for sale during the recent meeting. The agenda item was held until after lunch, during which time board members attended Otter's speech before a meeting of the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho.

During his speech, Otter said ITD had failed to show the financial accountability he asked for when he took office.

"There's been some, but I haven't seen near enough," Otter said. "We need some proof to show we know how to responsibly use the money we have."

Otter said he recognizes the state needs more funding to meet road building and maintenance needs, but that the first step is to make ITD more efficient.

It's the timing of the delay that caught the attention of legislators anxious to show constituents proof that something is being done about Idaho's crumbling roads.

McGee isn't the only legislator who sees politics coming into play in the board's decision.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, calls the delay "nuts."

"We have all these transportation planners, and they're saying they don't have enough money and they have a problem," Moyle said. "They have the opportunity to start to fix that problem and they point the finger."

Moyle said he places the blame with the Transportation Board. "[We] have a problem when you have a transportation board who refuses to build a highway. The problem is not the Legislature right now. We gave them the money. The problem lies right in ITD's lap."

"The elected representatives of the people of Idaho have voted for this," McGee said. "It's time for the board to move forward."

Moyle said he felt Otter was actually quite kind to the department in his remarks. "It's almost like they're sticking their finger in the governor's eyes," he said.

Jon Hanian, press secretary for Otter, said he's not sure of the accuracy of the complaint, but that he doubts Otter's comments could be construed as offensive.

"There's no place for spite in the state government," Hanian said.

Transportation Board members deny there was any political motivation or bruised egos behind delaying a decision on the Garvee bonds.

"There's nothing sinister about it," said Darrell Manning, board chair. "I can't imagine any board appointed by the governor would take that tack," he said. "It's out of the realm of reason."

"I don't think the governor said anything that he hasn't said before," said Jim Coleman, board member from District 1, which includes five counties in Northern Idaho. "He understands we need to increase revenue, but he's not going to support any particular amount until we look at efficiency. I absolutely agree with the governor on that aspect.

"It's not an ego issue," Coleman said. "Not my ego."

Manning said the bonds were tabled until a later meeting because the board had just received a preliminary report for projected revenue for the department. The report estimates that actual revenue will be $10 million less than what was estimated earlier in the year, and Manning said the board wanted to study the report further before moving forward.

He said he understands that any issue involving transportation makes political leaders nervous. "These are very important projects for this valley, and anything that looks like a hiccup, they get afraid of it," Manning said.

Coleman added that the board feels it is still too early to put the bonds out for bid since contracts are still being negotiated for work on the five projects that will be funded by the bonds. Among these projects is the widening of Interstate 84 between Meridian and Nampa.

When it comes to showing the requested accountability, board members admit they haven't shown results quickly enough.

"I'm not sure we've gotten that information to the governor as quickly as we should have," Coleman said.

The board has been receiving draft updates from ITD staff over the last year, but has only given Otter's office a copy of the report within the last week.

While the perception is that ITD has failed to find ways to spend its budget more efficiently, Manning argues that, so far, staff has found ways to save $50 million from upcoming projects without risking public safety.

Among those cost-cutting measures is a re-examination of the planning and design process. Manning said ITD has found 25 ways to change project specifications that don't endanger safety, while cutting the cost of projects. Those changes include a new approach to the seal-coating procedure. In the past, roads were resealed from one shoulder to the other. Manning said that by sealing only the travel lane, the department can get the same effect, while saving money.

Additional cost savings have come from new digital license plates ($1 million per year) and a change of the computer program used to process drivers' licenses.

Manning said the department is doing its best to improve, but it faces the daunting double challenge of increasing growth and rising construction costs. According to Manning, the cost of some of the most basic road-building materials, including steel, cement and asphalt, have increased by up to 200 percent. This, added to the fact that gas tax revenue has decreased due to better vehicle gas mileage, and the situation becomes what Manning calls, "a perfect storm."

And with an estimated 70 percent population growth in the valley in the next 20 years, Manning said it just means more problems unless something is done.

"We have to inform the people that the infrastructure of the transportation system is going downhill, and we need to make the investment to keep it up," he said. "If not, the economy of the state and this area will suffer, and we, frankly, can't afford to have that happen."

The board will now have to decide on what projects will be cut in the face of the $10 million shortfall. Those at the front of the line to be postponed are several building rehabilitation projects and other internal ITD projects, Manning said.

He expects that the board will look at the Garvee bonds again in either December or January. And while he admits some board members do oppose the bonds, "I feel the board will make the right decision," he said.

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