TWIN FALLS — In December and January, southern Idaho was hit with frigid temperatures and, in some areas, record-breaking amounts of snow.
Then came the flooding.
The second week of February, warm weather led to extensive snowmelt. Families had to evacuate their homes. Schools closed. Fields were submerged. And roads were closed as some were covered in water or even ripped apart.
Now, cities and highway districts whose roads were cracked or washed away have to deal with a multimillion-dollar question important to taxpayers and to anyone dodging potholes as they drive: Who will pay to fix the roads?
Local budget-writers hope the federal government will pick up much of the cost.
“It was good to see the disaster declaration approved by the president,” Jerome City Administrator Mike Williams said. “We just don’t know what it means for us quite yet. We’re hopeful it’ll mean additional funding for small towns like us. There’s a lot of highway districts and small towns and cities around us that are eager for some assistance as well.”
On April 21, President Donald Trump signed a disaster declaration covering the February flooding in 11 Idaho counties, including Cassia, Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka and Twin Falls, making local governments there eligible for some federal assistance to help pay for infrastructure damage caused by the flooding.
“Hopefully it’s enough to cover a majority of the roads that were identified to be fixed this year,” Williams said.
Seventy road miles in the Buhl Highway District were damaged, said district Director John Zamora. The worst hit, he said, were River Road where it crosses Deep Creek, and the Balanced Rock grade crossing. The concrete box culvert over Deep Creek washed out, taking 25 feet of River Road with it.
“If we’re going to mitigate damages from happening again, which we try to do, we’re looking at about $700,000,” he said. Maybe $750,000.
All of the damage could be eligible for some of the $50 million the state has allocated for road repairs, Zamora said, and some of it will be eligible for federal aid as well.
The Legislature approved $52 million in emergency funding this year, of which $2 million is already being spent by the Office of Emergency Management on immediate needs such as sandbags. The rest is for infrastructure repair.
Take Rupert, for instance, which faces $2.4 million to $2.5 million in road repairs.
City Administrator Kelly Anthon estimates about $425,000 of this could qualify for federal help because it can be tied directly to the February flooding. Some of the needed repairs, though, are due to either deferred maintenance from years past or other weather-related damage that isn’t covered by the federal disaster declaration.
“Areas in town that were in bad shape also got flooded,” Anthon said. “When we talk about the $2.5 (million), there was damage to some of those roads long before the winter took place.”
Anthon, who is also a state senator, said Rupert will apply for some of the state road repair money, too. But he doesn’t know how much the city will get, as “other communities are similarly situated” and many state highways were damaged this winter.
“I’ve never believed that the $52 million is really adequate,” he said.
Millions in damage
An initial assessment in April showed $30 million in infrastructure damage in the Magic Valley and Mini-Cassia areas, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s press office said.
Applications for federal aid need to be in by May 22, and earlier this month state Recovery Coordinator Jarod Dick was traveling the Magic Valley to brief local officials on what to do. For local governments, Dick told a group in Jerome, the federal government would pick up 75 percent of the cost of approved projects, with the state kicking in 15 percent and the city, county or highway district expected to provide the rest.
Private nonprofits that provide critical public safety or utility services, such as canal companies, are also eligible. However, they would have to provide the full 25 percent non-federal share without help from the state.
The disaster declaration makes aid available to help repair only public infrastructure, not private property damage, although some businesses and homeowners with damage claims might be eligible for low-interest Small Business Administration loans.
The federal disaster money can be used only for road projects for which there isn’t any other funding; it can’t be used to fix a road that is eligible for Federal Highway Administration grants, for example. Generally, the money can be used only to restore something to what it was before the floods.
“A gravel road can’t become a paved road,” Dick told a group in Twin Falls.
However, there is a hazard mitigation grant program that can be used for improvements, said Lorrie Pahl, mitigation planner with the state Office of Emergency Management. For example, you could use that money to replace a culvert with a bigger one, or to elevate a road when you repair it. The deadline to apply for that is also May 22.
Local mitigation projects will compete with projects elsewhere in the 11 counties that are part of the federal disaster area, said Twin Falls County Emergency Management Director Jackie Frye.
“There are no guarantees you’re going to get this,” she said.
However, Pahl said, even just preparing the applications could be useful when more grant opportunities come along.
“You can still resubmit those applications under different programs that are available,” she said.
As local governments wait to see how much money they will get, they are also putting together their 2018 budgets; the next fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
“Is there any sort of time frame for this?” Jerome Public Works Director Walt Appelle asked Dick, noting he is assembling his budget now and the roads will only get worse if not fixed.
Dick said the “kickoff meetings” to discuss specific projects would be held up to 21 days after the applications are received. But, he said, cities could also get reimbursed for work they do on their own. There isn’t a specific time frame, he said, “but the goal is to get it funded quickly and get it distributed quickly.”
Twin Falls isn’t waiting — the City Council voted in April to use $4.4 million in reserves for road repairs. Twin Falls is in a different situation than some cities — its weather-related road damage is mostly from roads freezing, then thawing, as the temperatures swung. In other areas, February flooding directly caused more road damage.
“We don’t have specific claims for the flooding event,” Jon Caton, Twin Falls’ public works director, said at the briefing with Dick and Twin Falls County highway officials.
As a result, the city wasn’t included in the Twin Falls County disaster declaration that led to the federal one, Frye said. And the city isn’t eligible for the federal aid.
Williams said Jerome has some money in reserves that could be used for road projects but has been holding off on decisions until it knows how much federal funding will be available. If the city chooses to raise property taxes this year, Williams said, he hopes as much as possible of that would go toward these road projects.
“At the end of the day we’re hoping for all the outside funding we can get,” Williams said, “but as is normal with street budgets it seems like there’s always more demand than there is funding available.”
Road repairs have already affected Rupert’s city budget — Anthon said the city has been making cuts for the past five years, reducing the number of employees, consolidating departments and putting the savings into road repairs.
“We’re already squeezing the budget as hard as we can,” he said.
By doing this, Anthon said, Rupert has doubled the amount it spends on road repair, to about $175,000 a year now. But it hasn’t been enough to catch up, which is part of the City Council’s decision to ask for a $3.96 million infrastructure-repair bond issue. Voters approved it last week.
Rupert, unlike some cities, owns its water and sewer utilities and plans to replace them as it fixes the roads, Anthon said. “You don’t cut open a road unless you’re committing to fixing what’s underneath.”
The federal government generally pays only to restore a road to how it was before, so new water and sewer pipes wouldn’t be covered. Anthon said the city is “trying to be as creative as possible” to pay for these needs, such as looking at what grants are available.
“Unless there’s a big influx of cash from the state or something like that,” he said, “we’re going to do the best we can with the money we’ve got.”
More to come in
The deluge isn’t over yet, and it’s possible more flooding this spring could lead to another federal declaration. In early May the Big Wood River spilled over its banks again, causing additional damage in Blaine and Gooding counties. Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who was acting governor because Otter was out of state, declared emergencies in both counties.
On May 13, Little, Otter and other state disaster officials visited Hailey, to answer questions at a town hall meeting. The worst of the flooding might not be over — the river will likely peak in late May or early June, said Vernon Preston, with the National Weather Service in Pocatello.
When Otter visited, the flooding had already claimed one life, a landscaper who drowned in a basement in Ketchum. A couple of neighborhoods near Ketchum and Hailey had been evacuated — 40 Hailey homes were under a mandatory evacuation order.
The city had set up a roadblock on Cedar Street a little west of South Main Street and was allowing only local traffic into the neighborhood. As you got closer to the river, the streets were covered in water, backyards had turned into ponds and some houses were surrounded by sandbags. Signs warned pedestrians not to walk into the water. The neighborhood was quiet, as most of the houses close to the river had been evacuated. But occasionally a truck drove out, splashing water as it headed back toward Cedar.
Otter said he intends to ask for another federal disaster declaration for Blaine County.
“The devastation across the state has been tremendous,” he said. “The infrastructure that we’ve lost is going to be a long time repairing.”