Friday, June 23, 2006

Highway 75 challenges HOV(er) over valley cities

No pun intended, but improving and widening state Highway 75 involves a long, winding road ahead filled with challenges and hurdles for Wood River Valley public officials and agencies.

Deferring to valley requests, and overriding the recommendations of the Idaho Transportation Department and its consultants, the Federal Highway Administration has approved High Occupancy Vehicle lanes for the $110 million improvement project.

Now that Wood River Valley officials have gotten what they requested, the really hard work begins.

The Federal Highway Administration is a taskmaster. It has laid down a set of demanding conditions in exchange for approving HOV lanes in its "preferred alternative" decision, and presumably will enforce compliance.

Conditions are formidable. They require an all-out effort by each valley community beginning now, lest an unimpressive half-hearted effort provides federal officials grounds for canceling its HOV approval.

Their conditions include:

· Increasing use of public transit PEAK buses to reduce use of private vehicles.

· Developing significant park-and-ride facilities and improved bus stops to also encourage transit ridership.

· Adding other features such as an aggressive carpooling plan, van pools, and subsidized transit passes for commuters backed up by marketing and education programs.

· A state-supported enforcement program of HOV lane usage by eligible vehicles.

Highway 75's HOV lanes—existing outside lanes of Highway 75 used during peak morning and afternoon traffic times, but used for all traffic thereafter—are unique, not fully proven and an added challenge for valley planners.

HOV lanes elsewhere customarily are the inside high-speed lanes of a highway. ITD District 4 Environmental Manager Chuck Carnohan believes an outside-lane HOV experiment in Aspen, Colo., is the only other, and that project, he says, seems to have virtually collapsed for lack of funds, monitoring and public support.

That alone should be an incentive for valley planners to design the required program and prove the mettle of local agencies and officials to produce a workable HOV system.

Make no mistake, other hurdles lie ahead. Money, to name an inescapable one. When and if the Highway 75 project begins in earnest rests with the state Legislature, which must handle funding, ideally through bonds reimbursed by Washington.

A single, massive infusion of funds during the Legislature's 2007 session would ensure steady work on the project, whereas small, annual outlays for segments would delay completion unnecessarily for years.

Proof that the valley is prepared to use funds immediately will be shown in the diligence and progress of officials in Blaine County, Ketchum, Hailey, Sun Valley and Bellevue in meeting the Feds' conditions.

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