State Highway 75 is the lifeline of the Wood River Valley, providing the only continuous route through the area for motor vehicles. It enters Blaine County south of Timmerman Junction, passes north through Bellevue, Hailey and Ketchum, and exits the county just north of Smiley Creek in the Sawtooth Valley.
The crucial importance of Highway 75 was recognized more than a decade ago when plans were started to widen and improve the highway for increased safety and enhanced transit.
The first phases of that widening plan are now being realized. Implementation of the full plan is subject to availability of federal highway dollars.
The plan became a reality in August 2008, when an environmental impact statement was finalized for Highway 75 expansion from Timmerman Junction to north Ketchum, a distance of 27 miles. The record of decision provided the legal authority for the Idaho Transportation Department, the agency that oversees expenditure of federal highway funds, to begin the process of turning paper plans into reality.
In 2008, the cost of implementing the entire expansion plan was estimated at about $200 million. But thus far, ITD has only been allocated about one-eighth of that amount.
That funding was actually procured several years before the EIS was approved. In 2005, Idaho’s congressional delegation was successful in having $27.3 million allocated for the expansion project in the “Safe, Accountable, Flexible Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users,” which was approved by Congress and signed into law in August of that year by then-President George W. Bush.
That $27.3 million allocation is now nearly all spent or obligated. However, it is allowing ITD to complete the first three projects of the Highway 75 expansion plan.
The first project is now nearly finished. It involved widening a 3.25-mile section of Highway 75 from Timber Way, just north of East Fork Road, to the bridge over the Big Wood River south of Ketchum and near St. Luke’s Wood River hospital. The stretch of highway now has two lanes in each direction with center-turn lanes and deceleration lanes at major intersections.
The second project was wetlands mitigation. A federal rule requires that wetlands destroyed by a construction project be replaced elsewhere in the same general area. That project is now finished, with ITD having contributed $396,396 to the Grove Creek Mitigation Bank, a project on Grove Creek south of Gannett to restore 14.2 acres of historic wetlands.
The third project is in the design phase, with construction planned to start in 2016. The project involves building a new and wider bridge over the Big Wood River near St. Luke’s and making roadway improvements north to the highway intersection with Elkhorn Road.
The availability of federal funds to complete the entire expansion project remains uncertain. Because of the state of the economy and declining federal highway funds, ITD announced in 2011 that it was only going to finish planned and funded highway expansion projects in the state, and that for the indeterminate future, federal highway dollars would be used for repair and maintenance of the state’s existing highway infrastructure.
Buses and trails
Transportation in the Wood River Valley is enhanced by a vast trail system that serves as an alternate corridor for non-motorized travel.
Bicyclists, hikers, cross-country skiers and skateboarders now have 32 miles of paved trails maintained by the Blaine County Recreation District. The Wood River Trail system starts in Bellevue, runs north to Ketchum and has an alternative route that passes through Sun Valley.
For commuters, nearly a half-million travelers are served each year by an extensive bus and van system provided by Mountain Rides Transportation Authority, a nonprofit organization formed in 2007 by Blaine County and local municipalities. With a fiscal 2015 operations budget of $2.5 million, Mountain Rides provides paid-fare Valley Route service connecting the north and south valley, free around-town service in Hailey and the Ketchum-Sun Valley area, and van-pool service to transport workers from the Magic Valley to the Wood River Valley.
In addition to providing economical and convenient transportation, the Mountain Rides bus system helps draw visitors and new business to the area, said Jason Miller, the organization’s executive director.
“Mountain Rides is vital to the economic health of our valley,” Miller said.