Wednesday, November 3, 2010

ITD to reconsider speed limit

Sections of Highway 75 may stay at 55 mph after expansion


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

After months of protests regarding the proposed 45 mph speed limit on the expanded Highway 75, the Idaho Department of transportation has finally indicated that it's listening.

The department announced during the Blaine County Regional Transportation Committee's meeting Thursday morning that it would reevaluate the speed limit for the section of the highway running from just south of the St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center almost to East Fork Road.

"Unless there is something that comes up, our intent and our expectation is that we'd have it at 55," said Devin Rigby, ITD District 4 engineer.

The announcement was contrary to a statement by the ITD in August that the speed limit could not be changed without changing the project's environmental impact statement. The department stated that such an action would require modifying a 167-page research document and could delay the expansion project for several years or even stop it altogether.

The new process for modifying the proposed speed limit would involve an engineering study, Rigby said. Once the road is completed, the speed limit would be posted at 55 mph while a study of the traffic at that section is conducted. If the study finds that this speed limit is acceptable, then the higher limit will remain in place.

The Ketchum and Sun Valley city councils have been clamoring for a reevaluation of the proposed speed limit since August, calling the proposed 45 mph limit "frustrating" and "short-sighted."

Rigby said the department decided to reconsider the speed limit due to input from the county and from the Blaine County Sheriff's Office.

"It's as much a local road as a state highway," Rigby said, adding that this characteristic required the department to be responsive to community input.

Sheriff Walt Femling was unavailable for comment, but Rigby said the sheriff had requested that the speed limit stay at 55 mph. Commissioner Angenie McCleary, who attended the meeting, said Femling had indicated that a lower speed limit in this section would be difficult to enforce.

As of yet, the department has made no final or formal decision regarding a speed limit change.

"[The department] can't make the decision until the road is already built, but they can indicate what they're going to do," McCleary said.

The proposed speed limit modification would not affect the 45 mph zone north of Hospital Drive, which will drop to 35 mph. The section from McKercher Road in Hailey to Ohio Gulch could be considered in the future, McCleary said, but is not being discussed at this time.

Rigby said a change in the speed limit might require a reevaluation of the necessary noise mitigation walls and impact on wildlife. However, he said widening the highway's right of way was not an option.

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"If we were to go that route, we'd have to do a significant reevaluation of the environmental document," Rigby said.

The only currently proposed noise mitigation wall, meant to block noise from the expanded highway to the Gypsy Mobile Home Park south of the hospital, has still not been approved.

The county unanimously voted in August not to recommend the wall, but Rigby said the department is negotiating with property owners regarding possible alternatives, including an 8-foot-high noise mitigation berm.

The transportation committee also made a recommendation to the department regarding the design of a proposed retaining wall on the west side of the highway south of the noise mitigation wall. The recommended design is similar to the design of the new Galena overlook, with a concrete faux-rock surface over wooden planking.

"It looks like a rock surface," Rigby said. "[The committee] felt that this was what fit best into the community."

Rigby said more information regarding the expanded highway's speed limit would be available after the first of the year.

County approves berm ordinance

Blaine County commissioners voted unanimously yesterday to allow landowners to keep their berms despite the impacts of the state Highway 75 expansion.

The new ordinance, technically a categorical exclusion in the Scenic Highway Overlay District Ordinance, allows landowners to modify their current berms and construct retaining walls so long as the berms do not increase in height and the walls are not higher than 48 inches.

The upcoming highway expansion project, to widen Highway 75 for about 27 miles from Timmerman Junction to Saddle Road in North Ketchum, requires a wider right of way, which would encroach on the berms currently in place. The new right of way may require the Idaho Transportation Department to slice into the berms that landowners have constructed along the current roadway to block the noise and view of the highway.

While berms could be reconstructed farther from the roadway, many do not conform with the overlay and are only allowed because they pre-exist the ordinance. The ordinance, adopted in 1999, limits the heights of all fences, berms and walls within the overlay district along Highway 75 to preserve scenic views from the highway.

Retaining walls would be required to keep the modified berms from sliding into the highway. The previous ordinance did not allow landowners to construct fences or walls above the base of any berm, but the new ordinance allows an exception for a 48-inch retaining wall if the berm is being shaved back by the Idaho Transportation Department.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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