More than a year overdue, the Idaho 55 highway project near Smiths Ferry wrapped up in late December with state transportation officials now acknowledging they again exceeded a budget that had already swelled to double its original price tag.
Preliminary estimates from the Idaho Transportation Department place the cost of the mile-long lane-widening project near Valley County’s southern edge at $62.8 million. That’s $1.2 million above ITD’s revised estimate in summer 2022. Its total budget for the project started at $30.8 million when construction got underway in fall 2020.
Idaho 55 acts as a primary thoroughfare between Boise and McCall, and the project site sits in a sensitive mountainous corridor along the Payette River. But repeated rock slides during the first two years of construction required emergency road closures and contributed to its lengthy delay of completion in winter 2023.
ITD officials, however, contend that the project, which straightened the curved highway, widened shoulders and added guardrails to improve safety, was finished on time at the end of 2022. But construction crews again returned in spring 2023 and continued work into December to stabilize a troublesome hillside at the northern end of the project zone that gave way in late 2021 and sent about 70,000 tons of rock and debris onto the roadway.
“The original highway safety improvement project was completed as scheduled,” ITD spokesperson John Tomlinson told the Idaho Statesman in an email. Work on the one hillside essentially became a separate project from the main project, he said, after the large-scale, “unpredictable” rock slide at one point closed the road for nearly three weeks.
ITD did not seek bids for the additional hillside work, and M.A. DeAtley, a Washington-based firm originally awarded the road project, remained the construction contractor. Instead, a contingency fund of up to $15 million was set aside to add erosion controls and snow fencing to ensure safety on the one hillside.
That was on top of a revised plan to remove another 140,000 tons of earthen material from the troublesome hillside to further flatten its slope at an added cost of $9 million. By the end, the contractor’s extra excavation from the lone hillside increased to about 255,000 tons of material, Tomlinson said, which surpassed $16 million in added costs.
Meanwhile, the erosion controls and about 140 snow fences installed on the one hillside came in at less than the expected amount, he said. But it still equated to just the additional work on the single hillside eclipsing $25 million.
‘We had to do something’
The overall project cost excludes another $1.8 million spent on the original project design and construction plans that later had to be amended. Even with the added design cost, the figures mean the overall project was kept within 2% of that summer 2022 cost projection, which Tomlinson said left the agency “happy.” ITD construction projects typically plan for a 5% contingency for potential project overages, he said.
“As happens during a construction project, some of the costs increase and some of the costs go down during different phases of the project,” Tomlinson said. “To have a multimillion-dollar project be within that percentage is remarkable.”
The Idaho 55 project near Smiths Ferry was envisioned to enhance safety in the rugged mile-long stretch that historically carried an above-average crash rate, according to ITD data. Since the late 1970s, those accidents included at least five deaths in three wrecks where vehicles went off an embankment and into the Payette River.
Julie DeLorenzo, a member of the ITD board whose district encompasses Ada and Valley counties and includes the Idaho 55 project, did not respond Thursday to a request for comment from the Statesman. She acknowledged at a September 2022 board meeting that the growing project costs garnered criticism from the public, but that safety improvements on the highway segment were necessary and years in the making.
“We had to do something,” DeLorenzo said at the time. “I know it costs a lot of money. … You can’t predict what’s going to happen under a mountain, and even with all the experts and their knowledge in rockfall and changing slope still didn’t get us quite there.”
Gov. Brad Little also previously weighed in with concerns about the high-profile project’s delays and ballooning costs. His office also did not respond to a Thursday request from the Statesman for comment about the projected total cost and December 2023 completion date.
“Gov. Little is never pleased when projects encounter unforeseen delays and cost more money,” Madison Hardy, Little’s spokesperson, told the Statesman in a statement last May, “but the safety of Idahoans is his top priority and the project must be done right.”
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