Help is on the way for I-84, no thanks to the Idaho Legislature

Here's a sneak preview of our Friday editorial on the state's plans to upgrade Interstate 84.

Interstate 84 is a trip back through time.

Two of its east Boise interchanges — at Broadway Avenue and Gowen Road — were built in 1969, when Boise’s population was approaching the 75,000 mark.

Completed in 1965, the Meridian Road interchange creates a 2012 speed bump. Once more than adequate to handle commuter traffic from Canyon County and western Ada County, the six-lane interchange is a bottleneck, bookended by an eight-lane highway.

These interchanges are relics that no longer adequately serve a capital city of 200,000, and rapidly growing communities such as Meridian, Eagle and Nampa. To its credit, the state is using some new-found savings to tackle these long-standing needs.

Earlier this month, the Idaho Transportation Board surprised local leaders — and detoured around the roadblock that is the state Legislature — by putting the interchange projects on the fast track. The board will take $180 million in savings and unspent money from the Connecting Idaho highway construction program, and put $132 million into I-84 projects. The aging interchanges should get a makeover by 2014.

This is good news for commuters, and potentially good news for the Treasure Valley economy. The expanded interchanges will better handle truck traffic. This, in turn, could spur economic activity south of I-84, an area with ample space to accommodate growth.

“The areas surrounding (the Broadway and Gowen) interchanges are expected to see 16,000 jobs over the next 20 years,” John Brunelle an economic development aide to Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, told the Statesman recently. “For those jobs to be retained, we must invest in the infrastructure to support them.”

No surprise, then, that local leaders spent the past two legislative sessions lobbying for these projects. But some lawmakers saw an opportunity to put an end to a program that they have resisted since then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne launched it in 2005. They blocked a plan to expand the Connecting Idaho program to finance interchange work.

The arguments against Connecting Idaho are, by now, almost as well-worn as some of the I-84 blacktop. The critics said the did not want to see Idaho use the power of credit to finance much-needed roadwork. They found a well-positioned ally in new House Transportation and Defense Committee Chairman Joe Palmer — who, ironically enough, represents Meridian, which will greatly benefit from the Meridian Road improvements.

Seven years after its launch, it’s tough to argue with Connecting Idaho’s results. The program has stretched Idaho’s highway improvement dollars, creating a windfall and an opportunity for reinvestment.

For Treasure Valley commuters, this next phase of work can’t come any too soon.