(Note: This is the first installment of a two-part interview with Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.)

The Idaho speaker of the House, Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, believes the remaining funds available for road and bridge work financed in part by GARVEE bonds could pass this session of the Legislature after not making it through the 2011 Legislature. The chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee sees it as an uphill fight, likely to fail.

GARVEE (grant anticipation revenue vehicles or a GARVEE) are tax-exempt bonds to finance road improvements throughout Idaho. These road improvements, undertaken by the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD), are to be repaid from federal highway funds received over a 20-year period from the Federal Highway Administration and certain state matching funds. Of the initial $998 million in GARVEE bonds authorized, there is $143 million available to the state.

Road and bridge infrastructure needs in Idaho, according to Sen. Jim Hammond, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, total $300-$400 million. But it is not as simple as doing maintenance or tacking on a new road or bridge. Actions have consequences, in other words, explained Hammond. “The challenge with expansion—it’s great in a way—but when you expand roads then you’ve got that much more to maintain, you’ve got that much more to plow, so it’s not just the initial expense of putting in that additional lane or that additional interchange, it’s the expense of continuing to care for that.”

Still, need or not, Hammond feels GARVEE will be a tough sell because of legislative reluctance to take on another program and because the funds are available due to borrowing from the federal government and he sees little support, including himself, for relying on the feds for the money.

Hammond also worries if the federal funding level Idaho is receiving continues to decrease, then the state must take more money from operating costs to pay for those bonds, which, in turn, makes it tougher for the state to maintain what it currently has.

In addition, Hammond says there is sentiment among some in the Legislature who consider GARVEE bonding as an indebtedness to its citizens, putting them on the hook for monetary obligations years down the road.

If the Legislature does not approve additional GARVEE funds, how does the state deal with the need for not only road and bridge repairs, but also expansion and replacement?

Hammond said ITD has an annual budget amount and plans for maintenance of the most pressing problems with no funds given to an expansion of existing infrastructure. According to Hammond, projects will be looked at only in terms of maintenance. Expansion and creation will not be a priority. Infrastructure that is degrading and needs the most urgent care will be the projects the state plan focuses on using whatever funds are available.

“That plan,” said Hammond, “isn’t put together with any thought about GARVEE. That plan is put together just based upon priorities of maintaining our current infrastructure. It used to be that part of that of that plan would have been expansion—additional lanes, new bridges, etc. Now because of the diminished level of funding the total amount of revenue available is just intended to be for maintenance and upkeep of our current infrastructure.”

Coming Tuesday: Chairman Hammond compares road and bridge maintenance to home ownership decisions and discusses the role of a gas tax in addressing infrastructure needs. Video for the series by Mitch Coffman, IdahoReporter.com.

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