Wednesday, March 26, 2008

'Ketchum crawl's' days may be numbered

Final EIS completed for state Highway 75 expansion project

Express Staff Writer

The so-called ?Ketchum crawl? may someday become a thing of the past. A major milestone to rid the Wood River Valley of the pesky traffic congestion problem was achieved this month with completion of the final environmental impact statement for the Timmerman Junction to Ketchum state Highway 75 expansion project. Photo by Chris Pilaro

There's hope on the horizon for the thousands of unfortunate commuters who make the daily drive to the northern Wood River Valley from the southern environs of Hailey, Bellevue and elsewhere.

Locals often refer to the traffic-snarled commute as the "Ketchum crawl." But its days may be numbered with the release this month of the final environmental impact statement for the state Highway 75 expansion project from Timmerman Junction to Ketchum.

"It's absolutely a major milestone for the project," said Devin Rigby, district engineer for the Idaho Transportation Department, who has worked to make expansion of the roadway a reality for the past 10 years. "It is very gratifying to have that completed."

But there is still lots of work to be done, and lots of funding to be procured. Rigby said ITD has $22 million in pocket to initiate designs, begin purchase of rights-of-way and even to do some high-priority construction.

The overall project is a high priority for ITD, but the balance of the $200 million estimated to complete the project is still subject to appropriation by the state Legislature, which makes a completion date impossible to project.

The preferred alternative identified in the final EIS is to build a four-lane roadway between Bellevue and Ketchum and to widen the highway from Bellevue south to the junction with U.S. Highway 20 just north of Timmerman Hill.

Rigby said 15,000 to 18,000 vehicles travel daily between Bellevue and Ketchum, while the stretch of road south of Bellevue to Timmerman Junction sees only about 5,000 vehicles per day.

Center turning lanes would be constructed throughout the length of the 27-mile long project, which ends to the north at Saddle Road in Ketchum.

The preferred alternative also includes intersection improvements, two bridge replacements, new pedestrian crossings and transit bus pullout areas.

But it still may not be all that locals want.

Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael, who represents the county on the Wood River Regional Transportation Committee, said Tuesday that she hasn't yet received a copy of the final EIS but she is concerned that ITD and the Federal Highways Administration remain reluctant to commit to funding improvements to facilitate HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) transit.

"They're going to help us move cars, but they're not going to help us move people," Michael said. "They're not going to help us buy land for park and ride. Do you know how much that is going to cost? Not one dime will be spent by ITD or the federal government to make that happen."

Likewise, the document does not address establishment of special lanes for high-occupancy vehicles, but nor does it preclude it.

"The main reason that it was not included in the EIS is because that is an operational issue, not a construction issue," Rigby said. "We have committed to that as part of the final outcome."

While the actual HOV design is yet to be determined, Rigby said the prevalent thinking is that one of the northbound lanes between Bellevue and Ketchum would be designated for high-occupancy vehicles during morning rush hour, and one of the southbound lanes between the two cities would be likewise designated for the rush-hour drive home.

Rigby said ITD will continue to meet with local officials and the public as the project progresses so that local needs and wishes can be taken into account.

"We are definitely not done talking to the public," he said.

Committee to discuss highway expansion

The Wood River Regional Transportation Committee will meet from 7:45 to 9 a.m. Thursday morning at the main meeting room in the old Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey to discuss the final environmental impact statement for the state Highway 75 expansion project. Idaho Transportation Department representatives will be on hand to discuss the preferred alternative identified in the document.

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