Friday, February 4, 2005

Idaho should borrow to build roads

Avoiding debt and practicing pay-as-you-go frugality are always prudent policies for government.

But borrowing has special benefits for special needs—such as accelerating public projects for improving the public good quickly, just as borrowing for a home provides American families immediate acquisition of their largest and most important asset.

And so it is with Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's State of the State proposal to float more than $1 billion in revenue bonds for an ambitious statewide road-building program to modernize roads and improve travel for private and commercial travel.

The GARVEE bonds that Kempthorne would use—Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles—would be retired with guaranteed payments to the state from the Federal Highway Administration.

This proposal has special appeal for Blaine County, where the principal traffic corridor, State Highway 75, awaits expansion and improvement to handle a nightmare of traffic problems that make it one of the state's most dangerous and increasingly unable to cope with increased traffic volume.

Instead of waiting for federal funds to be ladled out a chunk at a time each year over 10 to 15 years, GARVEE bonds would produce funds up front to begin work, then shrink completion of the project to perhaps three years, according to the Idaho Transportation Department, rather than the presently scheduled 10 to 15 years.

Naturally, borrowing money involves interest and interest increases the total cost of funding. But completing the highway in three years would have economic pluses by avoiding the vagaries of creeping cost increases for manpower, equipment and materials.

Alluring as the governor's bonding program is, caveats are in order and must be considered.

Idaho should not commit itself to a sizable billion-dollar bond obligation without ironclad guarantee from Washington that annual appropriations for Idaho highway programs would not be interrupted or withheld. Without regular federal appropriations for highways, then payments to retire the bonds would fall to Idaho taxpayers and their shaky state finances.

No such problem should arise. Congress and the president have a variety of means in the law for funding long-term projects in out years. Guaranteeing highway funds out of highway trust fund fuel taxes should be no obstacle.

Highway 75 is Blaine County's lifeline, central to the county's economic well being.

Launching and completing Highway 75's improvement through road bonds would eliminate perhaps a decade of aggravating, segmented construction and detours.

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