The Ada County Highway District has to wait until next year to get millions of dollars in state funds to support the extension of Highway 16 due to an imprecisely written bill from the 2022 legislative session.
Senate Bill 1359, one of Governor Brad Little’s flagship transportation spending packages containing $200 million to upgrade aging bridges around the state, was initially envisioned to include $36.7 million for the Ada County Highway District. The district planned to use the money to build roads and other infrastructure connecting to the new Highway 16 extension, starting in this upcoming budget cycle. But, the money cannot be paid out unless the Idaho Legislature approves a supplemental bill specifying ACHD can receive it.
Idaho Transportation Department External Affairs Officer Mollie McCarthy said the state intends to ensure the funds get to ACHD. Still, they need to ensure the law’s phrasing reflects what the legislators intended before they cut a check. The supplemental bill will not cost the state any extra money, it will just allow the money set aside this year to be sent to ACHD.
“It’s just a simple matter of there was a desire in the (Joint Finance Appropriations Committee) to allow a piece of the $200 million for bridges to be given specifically to ACHD, and it didn’t make it into the legislation specifically,” McCarthy said. “We’re trying to move forward.”
Rep. Matt Bundy, R-Mountain Home, who sponsored the bill, said there was no intent to “short-change” ACHD, but the bill needs to be cleaned up in order for the money to be transferred.
“Needlessly to say, JFAC had it, it goes through (the Legislative Services Office), (the Division of Financial Management) and some of that technical language we rely on the experts to catch to make sure it’s worded correctly,” Bundy said. “The intent is there in the wording of the bill, but the technical wording needed to be caught and fixed. It was a busy session, and it was a mistake that we’re going to fix.”
Goldthorpe: ACHD looks to state funds to support Highway 16
Highway 16 was a two-lane, rural highway connecting Emmett with State Street for decades.
But now, after a multi-year planning effort, the final phase of the extension linking the highway five miles south to Interstate 84 through Meridian’s far western rural edge broke ground last month. This project will add new intersections with the highway at Ustick and Franklin Roads, bringing more traffic and development to the rapidly growing area.
Once those cars leave the state highway, the roads nearby must be expanded and built out by ACHD to accommodate the extra traffic on the fringe between Meridian and Canyon County. According to a Facebook post from Commissioner Kent Goldthorpe from March, a bill in the 2021 legislative session that funded the Highway 16 extension did not include any funding to help ACHD with the road improvements.
“At that time, there wasn’t a single legislator that would consider assisting Ada County with those costs,” Goldthorpe wrote in his post. “Therefore, an unfunded mandate of $35 million was thrust on the taxpayers in Ada County to pay for roads that are primarily used by residents in Canyon and Gem counties.”
He went on to write about how he made a joke on a local radio talk show about ACHD wanting to put up toll booths to pay for the improvements to prevent Ada County tax dollars to be used for the project, which frustrated callers and potential travelers. Goldthorpe said ACHD then hired a lobbyist and convinced legislators in 2022 to agree to a carveout in the 2022 transportation package to include $36.7 million to help with the costs.
Goldthorpe posted a photo of him, ACHD Director Bruce Wong, ACHD Commission President Mary May, Rep. Brooke Greene, D-Boise, and Commissioner David McKinney with Governor Little at the signing for SB 1359 with the heading “promises kept” on March 18.
Little’s Press Secretary Madison Hardy lauded the bill and the funding it will bring to Idaho’s transportation system.
“Governor Little and the Idaho Legislature have directed historic new investments toward transportation infrastructure without raising taxes or fees, and they value strong partnerships with local highway districts in keeping up with the demands of growth,” Hardy wrote in an email. “The executive and legislative branches will work closely with ACHD, as they always have, to ensure we maintain safe roadways for the people of Ada County.”
‘Please let me set the record straight’
The topic continued to create conversation at ACHD even after the bill was signed.
In a letter saved as a PDF with the date of March 25, ACHD Director Bruce Wong sent a letter to Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, assuring him that the funds would be used for local roads connecting to Highway 16. BoiseDev obtained the letter through a public records request from the Idaho Division of Financial Management.
“Commissioner May and I understand there may have been a few comments made that were not in line with ACHD’s stated intent regarding the recently approved Leading Idaho Plan’s funding that you championed in JFAC to support ACHD’s upcoming project obligations for the State’s Highway 16 Project,” Wong wrote. “Please let me set the record straight.”
He reiterated the several occasions and ways ACHD has said the funds would be used for Highway 16. The last bullet point in the letter refers to a March 23 meeting where he says an unnamed ACHD Commissioner commented that the $36.5 million should be used throughout Ada County, and May again reiterated that the funds would be used for Highway 16.
During the meeting, Commissioner Jim Hansen referred to the funds being used in a larger area because the county currently takes all of its impact fees and spends them across Ada County, rather than in the areas where they are collected.
“I assume since we use a county-wide service area and the impacts are county-wide that’s the way we will apply the one-time transportation funding as well,” he said, noting that he was referring to both new sources of transportation funds the legislature approved this year.
May responded to him during the meeting that ACHD made a “specific ask” of the legislature for the $36.7 million to be used for connections to Highway 16. In an interview, she told BoiseDev that Wong’s letter to Grow was to reassure legislators in case they had heard those comments that ACHD planned to use the funds for Highway 16. May didn’t specifically recall who made the comment.
“Early on, there was some confusion about that money if it had to be used strictly for the Highway 16 project,” May said. “I think some comments had been made that there was nothing that tied it to it, and there was the discussion that this money is supposed to mitigate the impacts of the state system on the local infrastructure. We wanted to assure them we were appreciative, and yes, this money would go to that project.”
Goldthorpe questions ITD agreement
This week, ACHD Commissioners voted on an agreement with ITD related to the construction of Highway 16.
Goldthorpe started the weekly meeting asking questions about the agreement and some of the language in it, especially concerning Franklin Road, which is one of the roads ITD will be building a new intersection with for the highway extension. ACHD staff told him that this agreement was between the two agencies for ITD’s work because the state had agreed to make some improvements to the highway that meet ACHD’s standards for new roads, like a multi-use path. The agreement says ACHD will pay for the total cost of replacing a deteriorating culvert in the area and split the cost of a pedestrian bridge over Five Mile Creek for a total cost of $311,398.
“As part of that design, we worked with them very careful to ensure that the facilities they are constructing are meeting our standards and following our policies, and the whole point of this agreement is to memorialize that,” Justin Lucas, ACHD’s deputy director of planning and management told Goldthorpe. “It’s also to ensure that we asked them to do a few things, like the multi-use pathway, where the staff said, ‘You know since you’re out there, it would benefit the highway district if you included those in this project.”
Despite his questions about the agreement, Goldthorpe didn’t make a motion for it to be delayed and later voted for it on the consent agenda with the rest of the commissioners.
Commissioner Alexis Pickering also asked some questions about the timing of the agreement during the meeting. Reached by phone after the meeting, she told BoiseDev she was comfortable voting for the agreement after assurances from staff that it was not obligating ACHD to pay for the upgrades to local roads that were initially promised to be paid for with the $36.7 million from the state.
“As I’ve said previously, I’m not of the mindset that we should do any work until we get the check ITD, and the Governor had promised to help with the implications Highway 16 has on our budget,” Pickering said. “It sounds like this agreement is very specific just towards that McDermott Road to Ustick pathway and pedestrian bridge.”