Southbound traffic in the Ketchum area was delayed for more than an hour Wednesday during rush-hour traffic on state Highway 75 because of a road construction snafu near St. Luke’s Wood River hospital.
The traffic jam started at about 4 p.m. and lasted until about 6 p.m., as motorists were locked in near-standstill conditions from Hospital Drive north through Ketchum and beyond.
The Idaho Transportation Department was flooded with calls from irate motorists.
“The number of calls we received as a department, as a whole, was in the dozens of calls,” ITD District 4 spokesman Nathan Jerke said Thursday. “I handled at least a dozen myself.”
Calls about the delay also went to Blaine County officials. County Commission Chairman Larry Schoen said Thursday that he received several and requested an explanation from ITD.
Jerke sent an email Thursday morning to members of the Blaine County Regional Transportation Committee explaining that the delay was caused by flaggers holding traffic for road construction truck movements and promising that ITD would try to prevent further occurrences.
“The significant traffic delay on Wednesday was unacceptable and the reasons this happened will not be allowed to happen again,” Jerke wrote. “Per the contract, the contractor is required to maintain two lanes of traffic through the construction zone and the use of flaggers is not permitted after 4 p.m. ITD will hold the contractor to this requirement through the remainder of construction.”
However, Jerke acknowledged later Thursday in an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express that the traffic snarl was partly the blame of ITD. He also provided a more thorough explanation of the problem.
“The contractor was having problems with the hot plant yesterday,” Jerke said. “By the time they got trucks loaded with plant mix to the construction site it was getting close to four o’clock, when they’re not supposed to impact traffic.
“Instead of sending about 15 loads of the asphalt mix back to the plant, ITD field representatives allowed the contractor to keep paving after the four o’clock hour.
“Flaggers were not supposed to be on the roadway after 4 p.m., but to facilitate the paving and the movement of the trucks, the flaggers were still on the road after 4 p.m.”
Jerke said paving was halted because of heavy rain shortly after 5 p.m. However, traffic was still backed up for several miles.
“When it backs up that far and that long, it just takes a while to get traffic clear out and moving,” he said.
“We share the blame with the contractor,” Jerke said. “We’re going to enforce the contract as far as possible from now on and not allow flaggers after 4 o’clock. Sometimes you try to help the contractor out, and in this case it backfired, to say the least.”
The road work is part of a Highway 75 widening project. The work is expected to last throughout the summer and maybe beyond.
Schoen provided a written statement to the Express on Thursday.
“ITD’s statement is clear and appropriate,” Schoen stated. “Such traffic delays are not acceptable, despite the working conditions. The public has the right to expect they will not be repeated.”