The Idaho Transportation Department acknowledges that motorists are likely to encounter a traffic bottleneck, for up to three years, on state Highway 75 until a new bridge is completed over the Big Wood River south of Ketchum.
“Traffic will work itself out,” ITD spokesman Nathan Jerke said Tuesday. “Having the bottlenecking is why this project is No. 2, and we’re struggling to get construction going as soon as we can.”
Project No. 2 is the building of a new and wider bridge across the Big Wood River near St. Luke’s Wood River hospital. The project is currently in the design phase. Construction is planned to start in 2016 and to be finished in 2017.
Project No. 1 is currently under way and involves widening a 3.25-mile section of the highway from Timber Way just north of East Fork Road to the bridge in question.
Once project No. 1 is complete, which ITD expects to happen this fall, northbound traffic will be reduced from two lanes to one lane where the highway meets the bridge. Southbound traffic is currently reduced from two lanes to one lane several hundred yards north of the bridge.
Both projects are part of a Highway 75 widening project, which if and when ever fully funded will widen the 27-mile stretch of the highway from Timmerman Junction south of Bellevue to Saddle Road in north Ketchum.
For the time being, ITD is spending $27 million, the total allocated in federal highway funds to complete projects 1 and 2 and to provide wetlands mitigation for the entire 27-mile widening plan.
Jerke noted that until the new bridge is built that there is another option for the existing structure.
“There’s enough room to stripe it for three lanes,” Jerke said. “But I haven’t heard for certain if that’s been decided or which side of the highway would be two lanes.”
Jerke and other ITD officials, along with members of the bridge design team, were in Ketchum late Tuesday afternoon conducting an open house at the Kentwood Lodge to acquaint the public with preliminary design for the new bridge.
Steve Hunter, the ITD project engineer for the bridge project, said the public is mainly supportive of the preliminary design.
“I think we’re doing really good,” Hunter said. “They like the ability for wildlife and for fishermen to get through there.”
The new bridge will be longer and wider than the existing structure and will have wide corridors on each side between the river and the actual structure.
Hunter noted that ITD is working with two local advisory groups, which have been formed as subcommittees to the Blaine County Regional Transportation Committee, the primary local advisory group to ITD. A Wildlife Committee was formed in 2013 for highway-related wildlife issues and a new Aesthetics Committee has just been formed, comprised of representatives of Blaine County, the city of Ketchum, the Ketchum Arts Council, the cities of Hailey and Sun Valley, and the Blaine County Recreation District.
Hunter said ITD’s goal is to construct a bridge that is visually pleasing and fits with the landscape. However, how much can be done depends on how much money is left from the original $27 million allocation.
“As a tourist attraction, this place is highly sensitive to aesthetics and how things look,” Hunter said. “If they’re sensitive, we’re sensitive.”
Todd Johnson, project manager for Parametrix Inc., the Boise engineering firm contracted to design the bridge, said the approximate cost has not yet been determined.
“We’re about two months out from putting out an estimate,” Johnson said. “We know it’s going to be over $4 million.”
Jerke said the bridge project, which also includes some highway renovation north of the bridge to the Elkhorn Road intersection, is the last project that is funded for the 27-mile highway widening plan.
“This is going to exhaust any and all funds and there may have to be a little put into that,” Jerke said.
Jerke said if any additional funding is needed for the bridge project that ITD can likely find funds saved the past two years on highway projects statewide.