The Federal Highway Administration apparently has bowed to appeals from Wood River Valley officials and included high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes to the design for widening and improving state Highway 75 from south of Bellevue to Ketchum.
The federal agency on Friday announced its choice of Alternative 3A as the "preferred alternative" for the $100 million project. That plan calls for the highway to have four lanes through most of the Wood River Valley.
Alternative 3A means outside lanes on the highway from just north of Hailey to just south of Ketchum would be reserved for vehicles carrying multiple passengers during peak commuter drive times, including public transportation buses. Commuters permitted to use the HOV lanes would drive up the northbound outside lane in mornings and down the southbound outside lane in afternoons. The lanes would revert to regular traffic use after designated HOV hours.
But one of the principal public officials involved in the proposed highway improvement plan cautions that several significant obstacles remain to be hurdled.
Chuck Carnohan, environmental manager for the Idaho Transportation Department's District 4 headquarters in Shoshone, points to several conditions laid down by the Federal Highway Administration before final approval is given:
· Valley communities must commit to developing increases in public transit service outlined in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
· Plans for park-and-ride lots and added transit stops for commuters must be planned.
· Public education and publicity programs about HOV usage must be developed.
· Further transit programs also must be considered to encourage bus ridership, such as preferred car pool parking, van pool programs and subsidized transit passes.
However, the largest obstacles, Carnohan said, lie ahead at the state level.
He said funds for the highway must be approved and allocated by the state under the Grant Application Revenue Vehicle (GARVEE) bonding program, which advances state funds that are later reimbursed through annual federal high appropriations.
In a best case scenario, Carnohan said the 2007 state Legislature, which passed over the Highway 75 project in the 2006 session, would agree to fund the road so construction could begin in 2008. By the time legislators convene next January, Carnohan said, the Federal Highway Administration would have competed its "Record of Decision" so an application could be made for funding.
If legislators pass over Highway 75 next year, he said financing would be difficult, since costs are rising and federal allocations have not gone up.
State Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Shoshone, co-chair of the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, also told the Mountain Express that much depends on the enthusiasm of the next governor for GARVEE bonds.
She said Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who resigned to become Interior secretary, was "gung-ho" for GARVEE financing, but that Idaho Rep. C. L. "Butch" Otter, the Republican nominee for governor, is more of a fiscal conservative. Bell did not evaluate Democrat gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brady's views on GARVEE.
Bell explained that Highway 75 was passed over in 2006 legislation because road needs in northern Idaho and around the Boise and Nampa area involved critical and urgent safety issues.
The Idaho House's minority leader, Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said she's optimistic about GARVEE funding, but acknowledged that Otter "is not excited about the (GARVEE) program." She didn't express an opinion on Brady's viewpoints.
Jaquet also said that she's pleased with the decision to include HOV lanes. "We'd be looking at gridlock if we didn't look at HOV."
Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant is "pleased they (federal officials) made a decision as quickly."
Carnohan was clear that HOV lanes have lost favor in other communities. He also said enforcing their use between McKercher Boulevard, in Hailey, and Elkhorn Road, in mid-valley, could be a problem.
"If HOV doesn't work well," Carnohan said, "the Federal Highway Administration has the right to turn it off."
Where HOV lanes have been operated, he said, they are customarily on the inside high-speed lane. The proposed outside-lane HOVs for Highway 75 also includes turnoffs and stops for buses, which could hamper the speed of traffic. An HOV project in Aspen, Colo., has run out of funds and seems to have lost community support, based on anecdotal accounts, he said.
Carnohan also expressed concern that the HOV plans could face possible lawsuits from construction and trucking firms. They help pay for the road but would be denied access to HOV lanes.
Under ideal circumstances—immediate funding, no hitches with final environmental studies, no lawsuits—Carnohan said the complete improvement project from Ketchum to Timmerman Junction, at the intersection of Highway 75 and U.S. 20, could be completed by the year 2012.