Friday, March 28, 2008

Funding looms as hurdle for Highway 75 project

High-occupancy vehicle lane still on the table, highway officials say

Express Staff Writer

Devin Rigby, district engineer for the Idaho Transportation Department, discusses Thursday ITD?s plans to widen state Highway 75. Photo by David N. Seelig

Funding remains the biggest question mark that could delay the full implementation of proposed expansion plans on state Highway 75 through the Wood River Valley.

Actually--a lack of funding.

Earlier this week, news broke that the final environmental impact statement for the project from Timmerman Junction to Ketchum will finally be released this month. The news is sure to cheer the thousands of commuters who make the daily drive north though the valley from Hailey, Bellevue and elsewhere.

"It's absolutely a major milestone for the project," Idaho Transportation Department District Engineer Devin Rigby said Tuesday.

Rigby has worked to make expansion of the traffic-snarled roadway a reality for the past 10 years.

Early Thursday, Rigby met in Hailey with local elected officials who sit on the Wood River Regional Transportation Committee to discuss the status of the project, including limitations that the lack of funding may have on the amount of work that can be completed soon.

Rigby said the ITD now has only between $22 million and $23 million for the project, enough to initiate designs, begin purchase of critical rights-of-way and do some high-priority construction. However, it's nowhere near enough to complete the project. The project is a high priority for the ITD, but the balance of the $200 million estimated to complete it 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 road 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.

Another real question mark in the minds of local officials is how dedicated highway officials are to establishing a lane for high-occupancy vehicles. Rigby said the final EIS highlights the HOV lane as an operations function, meaning local entities and the ITD will have to negotiate about how to implement that aspect of the plan.

"HOV is still absolutely there," he said.

Chuck Carnohan, senior transportation planner for the ITD, said the actual pavement footprint for the highway is the same with or without the HOV lane. He said the only difference is how the roadway is striped.

The federal government agreed to leave ITD's commitments regarding the HOV lane in the final EIS document, said Diana Atkins, a private consultant for the ITD who has worked on the project from its beginning in 2000.

"It makes it a local decision," Atkins said.

In terms of securing additional federal funding from the U.S. Congress, the valley may be in a better position because it has a detailed transportation plan in place, Carnohan said.

Going forward, one of the biggest priorities will be designating areas of the highway needing the most work.

Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling, a member of the regional transportation committee, said work in areas like the Bellevue-to-Hailey stretch and the merging of two lanes to one lane near Elkhorn Road in Ketchum may need to be prioritized if funding remains short. Femling said breaking the project down into more manageable pieces will make prioritizing certain areas easier.

"It's so big right now it's hard to debate," he said.

The regional transportation committee's next public meeting will be on the last Thursday in April.

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