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For the week of Sept. 8, 1999 through Sept. 14, 1999

Selling the widening of Highway 75

"Good ol’ days" of highway planning are long gone

There was a time in Idaho, highway planners recall, when roads were planned and approved by state and local agencies, and then constructed with little public involvement.

Transportation engineer Theodore Reynen refers to that era as "the good ol’ days" of road building, well before the advent of the environmental movement, the politics of slow growth, calls for alternative forms of transportation and a host of other issues that can turn road construction into a political campaign.

Reynen is a senior transportation engineer with Boise-based CH2M Hill, a consulting firm selected by Idaho’s highway agency to produce a study on improving the busy state Highway 75 corridor between U.S. Highway 20 and Ketchum.

The study, begun last January and for which the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) paid approximately $125,000, is expected to be completed by next February. CH2M Hill’s mission is to project highway construction needs through the year 2018. An examination of this magnitude is unique in the state.

"A corridor level study hasn’t been done in Idaho," Reynen said in a recent telephone conversation from his Boise office.

To be sure, the study won’t be completed for several months. But so far, based on his firm’s analysis, Reynen said, "I don’t believe you can handle the transportation needs of the [Wood River] valley without widening Highway 75."

Reynen, CH2M Hill transportation engineer Betsy Roberts and Robert Humphrey, a Shoshone-based ITD senior transportation planner, have been visiting Blaine County governing groups and chambers of commerce this year in an effort to establish a dialogue on the volatile issue of highway expansion.

Two public or "open house" meetings have been held—one on Feb. 4 and the other on June 29, both at the old Blaine County Courthouse—aimed at getting some feedback from Blaine County residents. A third—and possibly last—open house is expected to be held in October. A scheduled Sept. 22 public session has been cancelled, Reynen said.

Many valley residents apparently support widening Highway 75 in the interest of safety, which ITD planner Humphrey underscores is the No. 1 issue to be addressed before any work can go forward.

Others, however, are apprehensive at the thought of a five-lane ribbon of concrete cutting through the scenic valley. Indeed, a Citizens Transportation Committee recently was formed to scrutinize some of the same issues that are before the state and its consulting firm.

Highway watchdogs view the imminent replacement of the Greenhorn Bridge as the first step in a more comprehensive highway widening plan. But transportation officials deny that, saying the Greenhorn project has been in the planning process for a couple of years.

Replacement of the aging 24-foot-wide bridge with an 82-foot-wide span is expected to take place in early October. Then, probably next spring, plans call for widening the highway to five lanes between Alturas Drive (near Ohio Gulch) and Timber Way, a 2.44-mile distance. The mostly federally funded price tag for the entire project: $5.4 million.

Negotiations are going on for slivers of rights of way along this short corridor. Nine private landowners are involved plus one patch of land over which the state has jurisdiction.

Point person for the negotiations is veteran Blaine County Commissioner Len Harlig. Asked to recall how he rather than a state representative became the lead negotiator, Harlig said in a recent conversation that the decision stemmed from an effort a couple of years ago to accelerate replacement of the bridge, viewed as a traffic bottleneck and a safety concern.

The state, Harlig recalled, agreed to speed up the project if the county would kick in $500,000 of the price tag. The commissioners approved the funds, he said, and the state-county agreement that emerged included Harlig as the point person for rights of way negotiations.

"It was the decision of the commissioners to have me do it," he said.


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