Blaine County has experienced a “worst case” scenario for potholes on its portion of state Highway 75, as extreme weather conditions in the past few winters have battered asphalt that was already showing its age. A comprehensive fix to the problem is proving elusive, as state lawmakers and the Idaho Transportation Department say they have been stymied to secure the needed repair dollars.
The results are evident to any driver who must navigate the highway every day—potholes disfigure the road from Bellevue, to Hailey, to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters and beyond.
“It’s a combination of bad winters and also the age of the pavement,” ITD District 4 Engineer Devin Rigby said in an interview last month. “It truly is a funding issue. We compete against everybody, including Ada County.”
Rep. Muffy Davis, D-Ketchum, sits on the Transportation Committee in the Idaho House of Representatives and said the Legislature needs a long-range plan for identifying and funding the pent-up demand for infrastructure repair statewide, which includes bridges, highways and roads.
“It’s going to be a long-range plan for sure, because we’re so far behind,” Davis said. “We in the Legislature need to give [ITD] the funding they need. Nobody has the inclination to raise taxes. I would welcome thoughts from constituents.”
For 2023, ITD has projects planned on an 8-mile stretch of Highway 75 from Ketchum to North Fork and on a 2-mile stretch between Bellevue and Hailey. The asphalt has become severely pockmarked between those stretches, however, and ITD crews do asphalt patching every year to alleviate the problem. But the needed repairs are tied into a major 27-mile corridor expansion project that goes from Ketchum to Timmerman Junction. Some of the projects included in that expansion have been delayed for years due to a lack of funds.
“We need to rebuild and add capacity,” Rigby said. “That drives the price up. We try to do patches on the two-lane sections so that we can hold them together.”
In 1999, the pavement condition on Highway 75 in Blaine County was rated good between Timmerman Junction and Hailey, fair between Hailey and Ketchum, and good for the most part from Ketchum up to the Custer County line, according to Idaho Transportation Department reports.
The year 2009 featured similar conditions: The pavement was rated in good condition between Hailey and Ketchum, fair between Ketchum and the SNRA headquarters and mostly good from the SNRA to Galena Summit.
In 2008, ITD finished an environmental impact statement on a $200 million, 27-mile highway expansion project, which would widen Highway 75 to four lanes from Bellevue to Ketchum and widen the highway in two lanes from Timmerman to Bellevue.
ITD procured $27.3 million in federal funding for the expansion, and it completed two of seven projects. One project widened a 3.25-mile section of the highway from Timber Way, near East Fork Road, up to the Big Wood River Bridge near St. Luke’s Wood River hospital, and the other replaced the bridge to widen it to four lanes.
The other projects have been delayed, waiting for funding to become available.
In 2016, the pavement condition on Highway 75 was rated as good from Timmerman to Bellevue, fair north to Ketchum and poor from Ketchum to Galena Summit, according to ITD reports.
The winters have not been kind since then. The winter of 2016-17 featured a record-setting snowpack in the mountains above the Wood River Valley, and the 2018-19 winter featured a record-setting amount of snowfall in February.
Rigby said the combination of overnight freezing, daytime thawing and high volumes of cars and trucks has been distressing to the pavement conditions. In the Wood River Valley, 20-degree nights and 40-degree days are common in the spring and fall.
“We have the worst conditions imaginable,” he said. “That’s the worst case for us. As the pavement ages, it increases that problem exponentially. We have to get on them as quick as we can.”
ITD has also grappled with higher costs for materials, such as asphalt and asphalt-binder, that have eroded the spending power on repairs. The price per ton of asphalt reached $493 on May 6; it was $365 in May 2017, according to ITD.
“We’re hitting a time right now where the prices of materials is going through the ceiling,” Rigby said. “We’re doing less and less for every dollar, just over the last three or four years.”
The environmental document has played a significant role in the condition of Highway 75’s pavement. It’s been a mixed blessing—having the document in hand means that the projects are on an expedited timeline for funding, but the projects are thus more expensive than conventional pothole repairs.
ITD must seek funding for more expensive widening and road rebuilding, which includes purchasing rights of way in addition to the construction costs, Rigby said.
“It’s a high-cost fix,” he said. “Instead of a $5 million project, it’s a $10 million or $15 million project.”
However, he noted that the projects are all tied in a single environmental document. Otherwise, they would each need their own environmental assessments, which would add two to three years onto the schedule for each project, he said.
“The environmental documents give us the opportunity to act fairly quickly,” he said. “With each project that comes up, we have that template.”
Rigby said ITD must perform a balancing act to divide money between maintenance and full-scale construction.
“We still have to maintain the existing road,” he said. “How much do we need to do to maintain and keep money available for full-blown construction? We’re trying to push the money into those bigger projects. We haven’t focused on some of those two-lane areas that are aging.”
At the start of the environmental process, the Legislature had a program that would earmark special funds for specific projects, Rigby said. That benefited the Highway 75 expansion. The economic recession that struck in 2007-08 was a major blow, and vehicles’ fuel efficiency, which affects gas tax revenues, has improved since then.
Special pots of money that have become available since then have typically been snapped up by larger, urban areas of the state. In 2017, the Legislature approved $300 million in bond funds and included the Timmerman-Ketchum expansion on a list of eligible projects. However, the money went to projects in the Treasure Valley and in north Idaho.
In 2015, the Legislature increased the gas tax and user fees, and implemented a surplus eliminator that siphoned money from general fund surpluses into road projects. Rigby said that has benefited Blaine County, but not to the extent of securing the money needed for the major construction and widening.
“It’s never risen to the top,” Rigby said of Highway 75 widening.
The surplus eliminator generated $60.3 million in fiscal 2018, though it was split 60-40 among ITD and local agencies. During the most recent legislative session, Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said Idaho’s 44 counties had to divvy up that 40 percent. She said the conversation needs to focus on additional revenue for infrastructure.
“We’re lucky if we get a couple hundred thousand dollars,” Stennett said. “The Legislature’s power is in the big, urban centers. You think about how little Idaho is planning for the infrastructure needs of the next 10 years. I just don’t see the political will over there to have that conversation.”