The year was 1995. John McHugh had just retired from 38 years as a successful certified public accountant in Coeur d’Alene.
He had time on his hands and was looking for a place to spend it.
Gov. Phil Batt had openings to fill. Among them was a six-year term on the Idaho Transportation Board. Although everything McHugh knew about transportation he learned from driving Idaho highways, he agreed to the appointment.
That was two terms and a dozen years ago. Today, McHugh, a former Coeur d’Alene city council member and two-term mayor, approaches his final meeting on the board in January as he closes out a distinguished career guiding the state’s second-largest agency.
“I was interested in serving on some statewide board, and I didn’t know any better,” he remembers of his initial appointment.
His experience with budgets proved invaluable the past 12 years as the transportation board and department became increasingly complicated.
“I learned very quickly that the transportation department was a very complex, big business. When I came on the board I didn’t know what a million dollars was, and now we’re talking about billions. Construction has become much more expensive.”
The department’s annual budget is more than $700 million, including the Connecting Idaho program.
During his tenure on the board, McHugh watched congestion escalate in all of the state’s metropolitan areas, including Coeur d’Alene, but most noticeably in the Boise area. He also witnessed rising construction costs and a growing disparity between wants and deliverables.
It’s a critical question facing legislators, he says – to meet the transportation needs of a rapidly growing state with resources that can’t keep pace.
“I believe we’re heading in the right direction, but I also believe we’ll never get caught up. The question is whether the Legislature will approve the taxes that will enable transportation to catch up.”
He also discovered that a single voice on a seven-person appointed board doesn’t constitute a majority.
“I learned that one person on a seven-member board isn’t going to change things very quickly,” he said. Which leads to advice for his successor: “Be patient. Most things don’t happen overnight.”
Serving on the board also requires a significant time commitment – three or four days (including travel time) for monthly meetings and additional time devoted to transportation-related meetings during the interim.
All with only a modest, per-day stipend from the state to cover expenses.
Surprisingly, though, McHugh never received many telephone calls at home inquiring or offering unsolicited suggestions about improving the transportation system. He’s never had an unlisted phone number and never needed one.
When he looks back over his board tenure, several projects emerge as memorable accomplishments – the Sand Creek Byway, a bypass planned for the Sandpoint area and improvements to heavily traveled U.S. 95, both south of Coeur d’Alene and between Bonners Ferry and the Canada border.
He also will remember – and cherish most – the relationships he developed with fellow board members. They have become more than working colleagues; they are life-long friends, McHugh explains.
“We’re a close-knit group and respect each other,” he said.
Board colleagues become like part of the family. And through the past dozen years, nearly all have shared significant health complications. McHugh suffered a heart attach two years into his first term and had to endure bypass surgery.
Retirement from the board will leave McHugh with time on his hands again. He will devote some of it to travel with Mary Ann, his wife of 51 years. But the routes they choose probably won’t be predominately within Idaho. Twelve years on the transportation board have given him volumes of experience on the state’s highways.
The McHughes have six children and 14 grandchildren, “scattered all over the country,” he said. They will figure prominently into the travel itinerary.