Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bill opens door for new speed limits

State plans to set regulations for in-city highways


By MATT FURBER
Express Staff Writer

A bill awaiting Gov. Butch Otter’s signature would open the door for higher speed limits on state Highway 75 in Bellevue, above. Photo by Roland Lane

After 15 years of local regulation, Republican legislators are pushing back on city control of highway speeds. The current law that allows Idaho cities to set speed limits on state highways within city boundaries is on the verge of repeal after votes cast in both the House (56-10) and Senate (29-10) approved new legislation.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, who pressed for and won local control in 1997, expressed regret that the House bill governing speed limits also passed in the Senate on Friday.

"This is not going to happen overnight," Jaquet said, after leaving the House floor Monday afternoon. "This was my bill in the first place [in 1997]. I'm kind of sad about it."

To become law, the bill needs to be signed by Gov. Butch Otter. As of Tuesday, he had not yet signed it.

At issue is a perception that Idaho cities such as Bellevue that are bifurcated by state highways have taken advantage of local speed-control authority and created overly low speed zones.

Nate Norris, who commutes from West Magic through Bellevue to work in Hailey, said that though he's never received a speeding ticket in Bellevue, he's lobbied legislators for several years to bring the new bill to the floor. Norris said the Idaho Transportation Department has recommended posting 35 mph signs for longer stretches of town than are currently in place.

Anecdotal evidence of alleged city speed traps is rampant in Idaho, including letters to the editor from visitors complaining of harsh city enforcement in the Wood River Valley. Norris said he feels the speed limits in Bellevue, particularly on the north end, are too low at 25 mph, and are a cumbersome restriction for commuters and not in keeping with the design of the highway.

ITD spokesman Nathan Jerke said Bellevue enforced a 25 mph speed limit from end to end in the city during summer 2007. However, in October of that year, the city moved the 25 mph signs closer to the city center. Currently, on the more contentious north end of the city, the posted speed limit is remains 25 mph at Kirtley Street, a street that serves a school and about 80 homes to the west. Across the intersection there is also a connector to the Wood River Trails bicycle path immediately to the east. At present, the northern-most 1,500 feet of the highway in Bellevue city limits is posted at 35 mph.

Others detractors of the standing law, including Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, a member of the House Transportation and Defense Committee, claim that municipal speed governance has provided a healthy revenue stream for Idaho cities. In testimony about the bill, Smith specifically cited Bellevue as a significant fiscal beneficiary of local control. However, Bellevue Planning and Zoning Director Craig Eckles said speeding citations account for very few dollars of city revenue.

"If a speeding ticket is collected of $85 for traveling up to 15 mph over the posted speed limit, the city would collect $33.50," Eckles wrote in an email, explaining that determining exact totals would require the court's opening up each individual ticket. "Other circumstances such as driver responses, insurance, vehicle equipment deficiencies, etc. may affect the issuance or non-issuance of a ticket."

Tickets for the past four fiscal years to date in the contentious north end of Bellevue equal 188 citations written, he said.

Eckles went on to say that, according to the Bellevue marshal, an estimated 75 percent of tickets are collected.

"So if you take 188 tickets, ... that equals $4,723.50 for four fiscal years or $1,180.88 per year," he said.

Eckles said the city is aware that many people feel the 35 mph stretches in the city are too short, especially for drivers who feel they've been stuck behind slow, two-lane highway traffic sometimes from as far away as Twin Falls. Bellevue has four lanes for traffic in the city core.

"Sometimes Bellevue is the first place drivers have a chance to pass," Eckles said.

Jerke said Bellevue has been in discussions with ITD since January, independent of any pending legislation, to study highway speeds in the community. The study is happening, in part, because a new traffic light for the highway intersection at South Woodside Boulevard is being planned with the city of Hailey for installation this summer.

"I knew Bellevue was making some adjustments," Jaquet said, adding that she saw no reason why Otter wouldn't sign the bill in the coming days.

Jerke said an explanation of how the state determines safe speeds is available on ITD's FAQ page at http://itd.idaho.gov.

He said that that, if Otter signs the bill into law, "ITD will continue a cooperative relationship with cities and has no intention of making changes without discussion with local jurisdictions."




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