Statewide Recovery Act projects well underway, local projects still pending

On a recent Thursday morning, about 50 guys supervised by one woman—Idaho Transportation Department Project Manager Jayme Coonce—hung from new abutment walls peeling back concrete forms, built up the retaining walls that will give shape to the new Vista Interchange on I-84, and monitored the progress with clipboards, digital cameras and cell phones chirping.

For Coonce, the top official on site, the project presents a new challenge: It's the first single-point urban interchange, or SPUI, to be built in Idaho. It's a ramp design that provides for a more efficient traffic flow. It also more than doubles the width of Vista, adding bike lanes, and conforms to storm water regulations implemented since the original bridge was built in 1969.

"There are lots of intricate details unique to this interchange," Coonce said. "They wanted this to be the gateway of Idaho, as you come into the Boise Airport."

There is one additional challenge on this job site. It is paid for through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, known as the stimulus bill, drawing extra scrutiny from the feds and the public and extra pressure to get shovels in the ground quickly.

Since construction began Aug. 5, a third of the new bridge has taken shape and Coonce expects the old bridge to be demolished on Dec. 10, a day after traffic is rerouted to part of the new bridge.

"That's amazingly fast," said Toni Tinsdale, a principal planner at COMPASS, Treasure Valley's regional planning agency. "In my opinion, they worked really quick on that."

Since the stimulus was signed into law on Feb. 17, ITD has broken ground on seven of eight major highway projects--ITD calls them the Great Eight--including the $17.8-million Vista interchange. Bids on all of the stimulus projects came in lower than expected, and the ITD board has secured funding for nine additional projects, costing more than $50 million, that will soon go out to bid.

"We're slicing and dicing these projects like delis," said Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, which doles out most transportation-related stimulus dollars. "They're just really closely monitored."

FHWA officials based in Idaho spent two weeks studying the files for the Vista project before it began and have spent two or three days on site, reporting back to Washington.

Hecox said there has never been this kind of interest from the White House and Congress on road projects.

On Vista, the FHWA has released $2.8 million of stimulus money in three payments to ITD, according to ITD spokesman Reed Hollinshead. ITD pays for work done and then the FHWA reimburses the state.

Hecox said his agency eventually expects another $95 million in stimulus funding bills from Idaho.

"We don't back up a truck that has dollar-bill signs painted all over it and then wait for that money to be used," he said. "We know [the bills are] coming and we're good for it."

Stimulus spending slowed after the first 100 days of the act, according to the nonprofit investigative journalism Web site, which estimated on Sept. 21 that $98 billion had been paid out on stimulus projects across the country. The U.S. Department of Transportation had spent less than 6 percent of its stimulus funds.

The Vista bridge is estimated to provide 320 jobs through multiple subcontractors, which are hired by the Boise-based general contractor Central Paving Company Inc.

Ryan Ward, a project manager for Central Paving, said the stimulus did come at a good time for his industry.

"It definitely has sped up the process on this one," he said. "I can't complain."

Before the recession took hold, Central was so busy, workers could not get to all the projects the firm had bid on. Now contractors are bidding against one another and competition is fierce.

Local contractors, including Concrete Placing Co., Granite Excavation Corp., A-Core and TS Concrete, are performing all the work on Vista, though a Colorado firm did some of the initial soil work and some of the materials come from out of state.

But the ITD projects, which claim the bulk of Idaho's transportation related stimulus dollars, are just the start of stimulus spending. Ada and Canyon counties have $26.6 million in local transportation and transit stimulus projects approved, though none have begun work yet.

Projects include new buses and bus shelters for Valley Regional Transit, 33 miles of new pavement for the Ada County Highway District, a bike and pedestrian bridge over the Boise River in Garden City and grants for handicapped-accessible taxi cabs.

Though the local agencies have yet to begin construction, Tinsdale said the projects were as shovel-ready as possible, one of the goals of the stimulus.

"If it's a federal project, there's no such thing as a shovel-ready project. If you don't have money that you're expecting, how can you have it shovel-ready?" she asked.

The ITD projects had been planned before the stimulus bill and were to be funded through the state's other major road funding mechanism, the GARVEE program, which borrows money based on expected future federal highway grants.

VRT, which runs the valley's buses, will buy eight new buses in Boise, three in Nampa and renovate many of the bus stops to be safer and more accessible. It also will get money to buy better scheduling software and to improve the ValleyRide Web site.

Two private companies, Northwest Stage Lines and Salt Lake Express, are also getting stimulus dollars for new buses, to help pay for wheelchair lifts. The two bus lines provide rural bus service from the Treasure Valley. And up to four wheelchair-accessible taxis will be purchased through a competitive grant program that ITD vetted.

"It was highly competitive; people didn't get everything they asked for," said Kevin Bittner, grants contract officer for ITD's public transportation division.

Coonce, the Vista project manager, had a physics degree and returned to school to study civil engineering. Now she works from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. on some days, ensuring that the concrete is strong, that the public is not too inconvenienced and that no one gets hurt. She prefers that to sitting behind a desk looking at technical drawings.

"I like to be out here and actually see the work being done," she said.

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