Every spring, Bonner County drivers expect to dodge a few potholes and slog through muddy roads.
But this month many of the major roads have turned into cavernous car-eating mud pits, and the natives are getting restless.
“It’s ridiculous. I haven’t been to town for 10 days and we are running out of groceries,” said Margaret Wise, who lives northeast of Sandpoint on Upper Pack River Road.
The road has sections of 4-foot-deep mud holes that her four-wheel-drive truck with oversized tires barely makes it through. School buses aren’t running on the road that’s home to about 300 families. Wise kept her three kids home Wednesday because it was too difficult to get them to the temporary bus stop 12 miles away.
“I think the only kids up here that are going to school are the ones that found friends to stay with in town,” Wise said. “The police can’t even get up if we need them.”
The bad news is Pack River is not the worst road, said Bonner County Road Supervisor Red Reibe. About 40 roads here have major problems. Some have only one lane of traffic or impassable washouts.
“Yesterday we are trying to get someone out who needed chemotherapy and another person who is in a wheelchair,” Reibe said. “People are hollering and I can understand it, but we just need things to dry out.”
The road breakup happens every spring, and it’s a part of life for rural residents, Reibe said. Still, he admits conditions are worse this year because of recent floods and so much moisture in the ground.
Pack River resident Donna Keeley said she doesn’t expect the county to pave a path to her driveway. But she said she pays her taxes the same as everyone else and shouldn’t be required to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get home.
“The road isn’t marked four-wheel-drive only on the map,” Keeley said. “We are not a bunch of whiners up here. We just want the road maintained properly.”
Reibe’s office has been swamped with calls about bad road conditions and county commissioners fielded 60 calls themselves in one day.
“Everybody wants their road fixed. We have 300 to 400 people screaming about it all over the county,” said Commissioner Dale Van Stone. “People think we aren’t moving fast enough, but we have every available piece of equipment out.”
Part of the problem is county crews need to haul gravel to fill in the gaping holes. But the heavy gravel trucks tear up more road trying to get to the bad spots.
“We have to weigh our options and decide if it’s worth tearing up a good road to fix some that are already torn up, and people are not happy about that,” Van Stone said.
About 50 Pack River residents held a neighborhood meeting this week at Buck and Edna’s, a nearby bar. They talked about submitting bills to the county for damage done to their vehicles and for missing work. They even are considering picketing the commissioners’ office.
“We are just awfully darned tired of it. There are people that haven’t been out of their house for a month,” said resident Donna Keeley. “No buses or emergency vehicles can get in and people are getting stuck every day.”
Keeley has shuttled residents back and forth to the highway in her truck. One of her passengers is Irma Lopez. She hadn’t been out of her house for four days. She hitched a ride to town with Keeley on Wednesday to take clothes and groceries to her two kids who are staying in Sandpoint so they don’t miss school.
Another of Keeley’s neighbors just had surgery for a knee replacement. The man has a nurse come to his home to help with physical therapy but the nurse can’t get up the road.
“In spots the road is just a sink hole. It’s gone,” said resident Rick Gilbert. Two days ago he watched neighbors winch out a four-wheel-drive truck that sunk up to its chassis in mud.
“It sure makes life interesting,” Gilbert said.
County crews dumped nearly seven loads of gravel in one mud pit on Pack River.
“It didn’t help,” Wise said. “It just sunk. I can’t see one pebble of gravel out there. The road is just shot.”
Reibe said roads are falling apart because of poor construction, not just the spring thaw. The roads are old and weren’t built properly.
The county already has canceled major road improvement projects scheduled for this summer to focus on repairing damaged areas.
“We need to get problem areas shored up so they don’t give us the same problems next year,” Van Stone said.
“Every time we turn around we get another road blowing out.”
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