Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Mixed messages sent in comments on Highway 75 expansion

Express Staff Writer

Some were pithy and brief, others long-winded and officious in the language of bureaucrats. But state and federal officials got what they requested—140 written and audio-recorded comments about the planned expansion and changes in state Highway 75 from Timmerman Junction to Ketchum.

The most vigorous push in comments was for developing Alternative 3 for Highway 75—a lane dedicated to high-occupancy vehicles (HOV). The draft environmental impact statement for the project had given less importance to Alternative 3 because of the costs of an added lane.

In December, the Idaho Transportation Department and its Utah-based project consultants, Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade and Douglas, unveiled a draft EIS of the $110 million-plus project. Then, on Jan. 26, an open house was held for the public to see graphic displays of the highway program and to invite comments.

Some comments from government quarters surprised Chuck Carnohan, environmental manager for the ITD's 4th District.

"(Blaine County) communities have had five and a half years to express what they'd like to see and what their preferences are. Suddenly at the last minute, they had a number of things that have never been mentioned before," Carnohan said.

He said "each and every" comment would be reviewed and suggested alternatives considered.

"What comes out of that exactly, who knows," he said.

The written comments and audio-recorded transcripts are posted on the Internet (

The 27-mile project extends from the intersection of Highway 75 and U.S. Highway 20 near Timmerman Hill, northward to River Street on the edge of the downtown Ketchum business district.

Three alternatives were considered: Alternative No. 1 would make no changes in the present Highway 75; Alternative No. 2 would generally expand the road to two lanes in both directions with a center turn lane; and Alternative No. 3 was the same as No. 2 with the addition of HOV lanes.

In the longest written document—a two-page letter and 10 pages of comments and suggestions—Environmental Protection Agency Seattle regional official Christine Reichgott wrote that the agency is "impressed by the amount and quality of interactions between the project proponents and the affected public."

But EPA cited some technical engineering details it wanted clarified, such as specific design of a widened bridge north of St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center, south of Ketchum..

EPA also asked for more information on wetlands impacts, suggested more underpasses for wildlife crossing the highway, and proposed that more data be collected on possible adverse effects of vehicle emissions on schools and the hospital. It also questioned why no comments were included about concerns of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes.

For its part, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game expressed concern about wildlife road kill, and proposed that landscaping berms along Highway 75 be removed or modified. The agency also proposed wildlife-friendly fencing, flashing lights, permanent signs and replacing existing vegetation with low-growing grass. It objected to noise and retaining walls that might inhibit wildlife movements.

Hailey-based Citizens for Smart Growth implored ITD and the Federal Highway Administration to develop Alternative 3, which would require a separate highway lane devoted to high-occupancy vehicles. Wood River Rideshare also threw its weight behind the HOV lane, as well as its criticism that the impact statement "underestimates" the importance of car-pooling.

The Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau also sent a letter strongly endorsing the HOV lane on the improved highway.

Perhaps the strongest push for the HOV lane concept came in a joint letter from Blaine County and the cities of Carey, Ketchum, Sun Valley and Hailey.

"Cyclist friendly" changes in the plans, among others, were suggested by the Blaine County Recreation District, including underpass tunnels.

Streetscape improvements were suggested by the Sun Valley Gallery Association in its written comments.

Among personal comments, Ketchum City Councilwoman Terry Tracy suggested ITD find ways to extend Highway 75 improvements to Saddle Road in Ketchum.

A former Californian who now lives in the Wood River Valley, John Drake, strenuously opposed the Alternative 3 HOV lanes proposal in his audio comments. He said HOV lanes in California were generally empty.

Hailey property owner Patricia Weaver appealed for a barrier of some 354 feet long along the west side of Highway 75 just north of Albertson's in Hailey to shield her from noise.

Increasing the speed limit on Highway 75 from 25 miles per hour to 35 mph just north of Friedman Memorial Airport was Scott Porter's suggestion.

Former Ketchum Mayor Jerry Seiffert registered his appeal for sidewalks on both sides of a widened bridge across Trail Creek at the entrance to downtown Ketchum.

ITD's Carnohan said he hopes for a decision this summer from the Federal Highway Administration on whether it approves of the plans.

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