Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Analysis of proposed Highway 75 project inches forward

Final decision on widening plan may come soon, ITD official says


By JASON KAUFFMAN
Express Staff Writer

A plan to widen parts of state Highway 75 in the Wood River Valley, in large part to ease traffic jams, is awaiting federal approval. Photo by Mountain Express

A final decision by the Federal Highways Administration regarding an environmental impact statement for the massive Highway 75 improvement project may be only months away, an Idaho Transportation Department official told Blaine County Commissioners on Tuesday.

Once that decision is made, the final EIS can move on to a record of decision, which would clear the way for the release of federal funds to partially pay for the project.

But before that can happen, highway administration representatives who can sign off on the final EIS will need to sit down with Blaine County and state transportation officials to resolve a number of issues related to the environmental analysis, said Devin Rigby, ITD District 4 engineer.

Rigby said the participants of the face-to-face meeting would sit down in a room and not leave until all of the matters had been resolved.

"And we walk away with a completed thing," he said.

The $100-million-plus project would affect 25 miles of highway, extending from Ketchum south to Timmerman Hill, at the junction of Highway 75 with east-west U.S. Highway 20. The plan has called for expanding the highway to four lanes through most of the Wood River Valley.

As the project was originally envisioned, sections would be widened to eliminate bottlenecks that cause traffic backups during peak times. The project includes environmental, pedestrian and bicycling amenities. The improved highway is designed to accommodate traffic through at least 2025.

However, loss of state funding earlier this year has called into question how much of the project can be completed.

Rigby said the filing of a record of decision for the Highway 75 EIS would initiate a search for rights-of-way needed to be purchased.

"That will be the biggest unknown," he said of the project's costs.

Rigby said filing of the record of decision would also release approximately $22 million in federal funds already allocated for the project. In addition to the purchasing of rights-of-way, the funds could also help pay for specific improvement projects at selected sites along the highway corridor, he said.

Rigby also told the commissioners that the local Wood River Valley Transportation Committee, made up of various county and municipal officials, will need to come up with a list of prioritized highway improvement actions they believe are in most urgent need of completion. He said those recommendations would be combined with existing recommendations that came out of engineering studies of Highway 75 conducted by ITD staff that looked at accident history and traffic volumes in the area.

Funding for the Highway 75 project took a major hit earlier this year when local officials were told that the $100-million-plus in promised funding had vanished. Most of those funds would have been produced through Idaho's sale of GARVEE (Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle) bonds, which would be reimbursed by annual federal payments.

During a February meeting, Rigby told members of the Wood River Valley Transportation Committee that the state transportation board has come to understand the limitations of the GARVEE funding, which is far less than thought when the GARVEE idea was unveiled by then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne in his "Connecting Idaho" highway blueprint.

He said committed funds for state highway improvement projects will be poured into higher priority projects in northern Idaho and around Boise and Twin Falls rather than into the Highway 75 project.




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