Friday, March 23, 2007

Highway 75 planners target rights of way

Limited funds lend urgency to project

Express Staff Writer

Often seeming to move as slow as some of the bottleneck traffic it aims to relieve, the state Highway 75 expansion and improvement project took another methodical, slow step forward Thursday when the Wood River Regional Transportation Committee agreed to begin targeting the most urgent rights-of-way needs.

The group's monthly meeting was devoted entirely to the Highway 75 project, whose initial price of $100 million has ballooned to cost estimates ranging as high as $180 million because of labor, materials and land costs.

Ketchum City Administrator Ron LeBlanc suggested that a map of priority rights-of-way would help cities and the county protect land against development. Dr. Jeffrey Adams, Blaine County's regional planning coordinator, agreed to chair a team of planners and administrators from the cities of Ketchum, Hailey, Sun Valley, and Bellevue plus Blaine County that would target spots ripe for commercial development and where right-of-way would be needed for widening the road.

This, said Devin Rigby, District 4 engineer for the Idaho Transportation Department, would become a list of priorities for the limited funds available for initial work on the highway's improvement.

Rigby said the McHanville area abreast of St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center, for example, is a prime development prospect. If government entities responsible for approving those developments knew of right-of-way needs, they could possibly negotiate right-of-way deals and otherwise base decisions on the needs of the highway project.

The city of Ketchum last week endorsed the concept of a four-lane highway between the Serenade Lane highway intersection southward to Elkhorn Road.

Rigby said that the limited funds now known to be available, some $23 million to $24 million, could easily be gobbled up by a single, major right-of-way acquisition.

However, he said pinpointing specific rights-of-way needs along the entire corridor is a more desirable strategy.

LeBlanc said targeting needed rights-of-way is urgent, since any delay would result in even higher land costs for acquisition.

One reason for accelerating decision on rights-of-way is that if allocated funds are not committed to specific work, the state could step in and take uncommitted funds for use by other projects in the state.

"The sooner we get started," said Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorson, "the better, so nobody can get their hand in the pie and take it away from us."

Complete funding for the highway improvement project still is problematical, Rigby told the group. Some small work involving paving, bus pullouts and lighting could be financed from district ITD funds.

He said major construction work won't begin before 2010, but once the Federal Highway Administration's Record of Decision is rendered this fall, spending can begin on rights-of-way planning, design and acquisition.

The concept of charging tolls on Highway 75 was revived by Peter Everett, a member of the KART transit board, who agreed to a suggestion from the meeting's chair, County Commissioner Tom Bowman, to put together a paper outlining the concept of a toll road.

Rigby, however, said the state Transportation Board had "dismissed" the idea of toll roads and instead is studying increased vehicle registration fees and fuel taxes.

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