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For the week of Jan. 19 through Jan. 25, 2000

Public to ITD: at least replace Greenhorn Bridge

Government task force aims to reach consensus on Highway 75 improvements

Express Staff Writer

j19trans.jpg (7597 bytes)ITD director Dwight Bower fields questions about Highway 75 improvements as Q&A facilitator and local businessman Bob Rosso looks on. (Express photo by Willy Cook)

A crowd of 100-plus applauded when Blaine County Commissioner Leonard Harlig urged the Idaho Transportation Department to proceed with delayed plans to replace the Greenhorn Bridge and expand state Highway 75 from Alturas Drive to Elkhorn Road.

An indication of the public’s support of this phase of the state highway agency’s controversial road improvement plan surfaced during an ITD-led question-and-answer session last Thursday in Hailey.

"We need to fast track the Greenhorn project and get it underway this year," said Blaine County Commission chairperson Mary Ann Mix.

Longer range, and more contentious, questions haven’t yet been answered by the ITD on highway design, mass transit alternatives and the environmental impact highway expansion.

The meeting at the Wood River Middle School was organized by Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, in an attempt to reach a consensus between community leaders and ITD officials on highway improvements.

The importance of the meeting was underscored by the presence of ITD director Dwight Bower.

Under questioning from the public, Bower indicated the ITD would consider redesigning the proposed five-lane-wide Greenhorn Bridge—if that’s what the public wants.

Work on the aging bridge, which had been expected to begin last fall, probably won’t start until this spring at the earliest, according to highway officials.

"We’ve heard from elected officials in Hailey and Bellevue who said, ‘let’s get something done about the highway now,’" Jaquet said. "Yet, in Ketchum we heard them say ‘stop, let’s wait and consider alternatives.’ So we’re hearing different things throughout the valley."

The previous week, the Ketchum City Council endorsed a three-lane alternative to the ITD’s five lane proposal for the highway south of East Fork Canyon.

The Citizens Transportation Coalition (CTC), a local highway activist group, supports highway improvements but is pushing for a well engineered three-lane road configuration in the Highway 75 corridor.

ITD’s senior planner, Bob Humphrey, said during Thursday’s session that the highway agency’s Boise-based engineering consultant firm, CH2M Hill, is in the process of putting together a Highway 75 corridor study which should be completed in February.

Humphrey said the study grew out of a 1997 Blaine County advisory ballot in which 87 percent of voters indicated they were in favor of some form of highway improvements. Based on traffic counts and projected growth, the study proposes widening the highway from Timmerman Hill to Saddle Road over the next 20 years.

Humphrey said the consulting firm conducted traffic counts at 29 locations along the Highway 75 corridor from the junction with Highway 20 to Ketchum. This data was then used to estimate current traffic and future forecasts by calculating the number of additional dwellings that could be built in the Wood River Valley over the next two decades.

The study also reviewed public comment gathered at three corridor study open houses held over the last year. Humphrey said the public "indicated, in general, difficulty in traveling up and down the valley."

He added:

"The study is not a pie in the sky thing. CH2M Hill did some in-depth evaluations. Based on public input and data gathered, a four-lane facility is needed."

Humphrey said he backed CH2M Hill’s findings, which have been questioned by the CTC and traffic consultants hired by the Ketchum City Council.

Many of the questions directed toward the ITD by elected officials and the public during Thursday’s meeting involved environmental studies associated with highway expansion.

Humphrey said the corridor study should not be seen as a blueprint for the valley, but rather as part of an evolving environmental study process. He said it would, in effect, be a springboard for additional discussion by the public, cities, county and other highway consultants.

ITD engineer Devin Rigby said data collected in the corridor study will be used for a federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process. He said mass transit alternatives and mitigation of the environmental impact of highway projects must be addressed in the NEPA document. It will take one to three years to complete the NEPA process, Rigby said.

ITD director Bower said environmental studies have been done and an environmental document has been filed with the Federal Highway Administration for the Greenhorn Bridge and Alturas to Timber Way projects, but not for the rest of the Highway 75 corridor.

Federal highway officials agreed with the ITD last September that these two phases of construction do not present significant environmental problems, according to information presented at the meeting.

Bower said the ITD cannot get federal funds for highway projects for the rest of the corridor until environmental studies have been completed and filed with the federal government.

"Lawsuits could delay the project," Bower said. "We have to complete an environmental document first and make sure the process is complete and thorough."

Following the meeting, CTC spokesperson Jan Edelstein said, "The CTC applauds the ITD for moving on to the environmental component of the design process. We hope the ITD will start soon and move expeditiously."

One outcome of the session was that an agreement was reached to form a highway task force consisting of elected officials from Ketchum, Hailey, Bellevue, Carey and Blaine County. The panel’s goal: to reach a consensus on Highway 75 improvements.

A task force headed by Sun Valley City Council member Linda O’Shea also was formed to examine alternative forms of transportation in the Wood River Valley.


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