Friday, May 30, 2008

East Fork residents: ‘No’ to proposed road expansion

Plan calls for widening rural 2-lane route

Express Staff Writer

Plans to reconstruct East Fork Road, shown here along its lower length, ran into a snag Wednesday when local residents voiced strong opposition to the widening project. Photo by David N. Seelig

Officials from the Idaho Transportation Department and Blaine County ran into a barrage of criticism Wednesday night during a meeting held to discuss work that's anticipated to begin on East Fork Road as early as this summer.

Under plans unveiled by ITD, about the first mile of the two-lane road that leads up the valley of the East Fork of the Big Wood River east of state Highway 75 would be reconstructed to larger dimensions that meet federal highway standards.

The project area extends from the east side of the bridge over the Big Wood River to just east of the entrance of Ranch Lane onto East Fork Road. East Fork Road extends higher into the Pioneer Mountains and dead-ends on Sawtooth National Forest land west of Hyndman Peak and several other popular summits in the range.

When complete, the road would include two 11-foot vehicle lanes for traffic traveling in each direction as well as two 5-foot bike paths, one on each side of the road.

And therein lies the rub, at least for residents living in the scenic valley in the western Pioneer Mountain foothills.

Due to the widening of the road, planners say it would have to be raised at least 2 feet higher. That would in turn require many of the entrances to private homes along the roadway to be raised up, thereby creating steeper entry and exit points.

Local residents were especially incensed about this last fact, and said the steeper entrances to their homes would create a dangerous situation, particularly during the winter when icy conditions make accessing the road difficult. High snowbanks during the winter further exacerbate the difficulty residents have seeing oncoming traffic, they said.

For now, the road varies from 22 to 24 feet wide and isn't striped, said Dale Shappee, Blaine County road and bridge superintendent.

Wednesday's meeting isn't the first time the proposed East Fork project has generated controversy. In the years since officials began developing plans for the project in the late 1990s, concerned local residents have attended one meeting after another to express their desire to see the road stay as "rural" in nature as possible.

This week, numerous local residents attending the meeting said the plans now envisioned for the stretch of roadway appear more like an "expressway" rather than the rural two-lane road they chose to live along. Many of them asked the officials present, including Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael, to scrap the existing plans and go back to the drawing boards.

The problem is that federal funding used to design the project—about $300,000 to date—would need to be paid back in full to the federal government by the county if the project does not go forward as currently designed. In all, the design process will likely cost upwards of $400,000 by the time it's complete, ITD officials said.

Because of the federal funding, the road must meet the wider federal roadway standards, which was also a sticking point for locals.

Despite the issue of the cost to the county should they decide to drop the existing plans, County Commissioner Michael told the crowd she would bring their concerns back to the rest of the county commission to discuss.

"At this point, it sounds like the board (of county commissioners) needs to take up this issue," she said.

Based on her knowledge of the last public meeting held to discuss the project four years ago, Michael said a contingent of the public requested the inclusion of bike paths in the project. The addition of the bike paths on both sides of the road necessitates the added width, ITD officials said.

Michael said the commission will have to go back to meeting records to see how many people asked for the bike paths.

"There's a constituency out in your neighborhood that wants to see a bike path," she said. "That was the understanding."

But local residents dispute that, saying only a select few "special interests" asked for the bike path. Several people, most of whom didn't give their names during the meeting, said the county should drop all plans for the roadwork.

But that wouldn't take into account the desires of other county residents, Shappee said. He reminded the crowd that decisions on roadwork in the county need to take into account the concerns of all citizens, not just those who live along a particular road.

Road construction decisions are "not driven by what this group wants, but by what the public wants," he said.

East Fork resident and Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commissioner Pat Murphy advised his fellow East Fork neighbors attending the meeting that they need to voice their concerns to the county commissioners.

"Obviously, without getting many of us involved they went ahead with this," he said.

It should be noted that none of the sitting members on the Blaine County Commission were members of the commission when many of the most important decisions were made about the project, Shappee said.

He said dropping the plans could mean a doubling of the cost just to design the project.

"So we'd be looking at $800,000," he said.

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