Friday, August 27, 2010

Panel questions reduced highway speeds

Transportation group favors aesthetics for retaining wall

Express Staff Writer

Motorists on state Highway 75 between Ketchum and Hailey will have more time in the future to observe an aesthetically pleasing retaining wall if they cruise at the future maximum speed limit of 45 miles per hour. No immediate reason for concern—start of construction on the H-75 expansion project, and the planned reduction in speed, is still a few years away. Photo by David N. Seelig

When state Highway 75 is rebuilt and expanded between Ketchum and Hailey, the speed limit will drop. The limit on the main stretch of roadway, where motorists can now legally cruise at 55 mph, will drop to 45 mph.

Not only that, but the 45 mph zone north of Hospital Drive—near St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center—will drop to 35 mph.

This information shouldn't be new. It's not even correct to call it a proposed speed reduction. It's basically set in stone, having been in the environmental impact statement for the 27-mile highway expansion project all along. But for some reason, it escaped the attention of nearly everyone.

"It's in there," said Sun Valley City Councilman Nils Ribi, a member of the Blaine County Regional Transportation Committee. "But we all kind of had a dumbfounded look on our faces when they brought it up."

The "we" is the transportation committee, and the "they" is the Idaho Transportation Department. Ribi said he first learned about the reduced highway speeds "three or four months ago."

"In all their open houses, it was never highlighted, it was never discussed," he said.

Ribi said it doesn't make a lot of sense to him to widen the road and reduce the speed, too. He said it will add another 10-15 minutes to the drive between Ketchum and Hailey, possibly driving away prospective tourists and adding more time to the workday for commuters.

"It adds up to frustration to a lot of people," he said.

The transportation committee expressed its concerns to the ITD at the committee's meeting Wednesday morning. But basically, in order to not reduce highway speeds, ITD reported that the environmental impact statement—a lengthy research document—would have to be changed, a process that could delay the expansion project for several years or even stop it altogether.

When finished, the project would widen the highway for 27 miles from Timmerman Junction south of Bellevue to Saddle Road in north Ketchum. No dates have been set for completion of the project, which is expected to cost $250 million. Complete funding has not been secured, but $29 million has been available and is enough to start the first phase—renovation of the roadway for 3.25 miles from north of East Fork Road to the Big Wood River bridge near St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center.

The ITD is currently in the process of designing that segment of the project and procuring easements or purchasing rights-of-way from landowners. Actual construction on the segment isn't projected to start until 2013. Once it's finished, according to the EIS, the speed limit will be reduced.

In other business at the transportation committee meeting, the group voted for aesthetics in the appearance of 10-foot-high retaining wall more than 200 feet long that will be built south of Hospital Drive where the roadway is close to a hillside.

"The key thing is we feel we need to keep this as natural as possible," Ribi said. "We don't want them to dump one of the walls like they have in Boise here in the valley. We'd sort of like to have it a little more natural looking than industrial looking."

Terry Smith:

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