ITD: Upgrades to U.S. 12 were planned

Decisions on road building were not made to assist oil companies, spokesman says

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Idaho Transportation Department poured $24.25 million of government money into U.S. Highway 12 in 2009 and 2010.

Those were the years when the agency was preparing for more than 200 oversized loads from oil companies that want to travel the road from Lewiston to the Montana border.

But only $1.25 million of the construction money for U.S. Highway 12 was added after ITD knew about the oil companies’ desire to use the road for cargo, according to the transportation department. The remainder of the work had been in the planning stages for years.

Jeff Stratten, a spokesman for ITD at Boise, stressed the upgrades to U.S. 12 this year and last were not done to assist the oil companies.

Spending on U.S. 12 in 2009 and 2010 compares with about $6 million the department used for major upgrades to the highway in the combined years of 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, or the $10 million damage bond the agency included in its requirements for four ConocoPhillips loads.

In many instances, the cargo would be heavier than anything else to ever use U.S. 12, according to ITD. Until now, the most substantial load to use the highway weighed 437,000 pounds. The biggest ConocoPhillips load is 675,000 pounds, while the largest Imperial Oil load is more than 580,000 pounds.

Not a single oversized load has left the Port of Lewiston, where the four ConocoPhillips shipments and 16 of Imperial Oil’s loads are being stored. They were manufactured overseas and barged to the port on the Columbia-Snake river system. The ConocoPhillips loads are heading to a refinery in Montana. The Imperial Oil modules are going to the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada.

The loads are stuck because of litigation filed in August now before Idaho’s Supreme Court. ITD has indicated it won’t act on a request from Imperial Oil to send the 200 loads on U.S. 12 in the next year until the court issues an opinion in the ConocoPhillips case.

Among the requirements ITD has established for the loads – a majority of which would take two lanes of traffic – are they would travel at night with an Idaho State Police escort paid for by the oil companies. They would have to pull over every 15 minutes to allow traffic to pass.

All of those recommendations about how to handle the oversized loads were entirely separate from the decisions ITD made for road-building, Stratten said. “These projects are typically put into the program five years before they happen. In some cases, it takes longer for the projects to become a reality. Projects are often delayed because of funding.”

The economic cycle may have been a factor in the timing of the work, too, Stratten said. When the economy was booming before the recession hit in 2007, high demand for building materials such as steel, asphalt and cement inflated the costs of all state transportation projects. After the economy softened, those prices decreased and bids from contractors became more competitive, enabling ITD to complete some projects that had been on hold, Stratten said.

The largest of the projects cost $19 million and happened in 2009 and 2010 – widening and resurfacing a 23-mile section of the road near Syringa. All but $750,000 the project had been a part of the state’s plans since 2003, according to ITD.

Other projects on U.S. Highway 12 in 2009 and 2010 included: Arrow Bridge rehabilitation, $2 million of mostly federal money, placed in the plan in 2006; resurfacing from Woodland Road to Kooskia, $1.5 million, from the state, placed in the plan 2005; Junction with Highway 7 at Orofino, widening with turn bay, $1.5 million in state money, placed in the plan in 2001; and a turn bay at Lenore, $500,000 primarily from the state placed in the plan this year.

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.