The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has given approval to a $90 million highway project that will route U.S. 95 traffic away from Sandpoint’s city streets.
The draft permit, released late Friday, is one of the final hurdles for the long-awaited Sand Creek Byway project, which was first proposed by state engineers in the 1950s.
Instead of channeling heavy truck traffic through the resort town on Lake Pend Oreille, a new section of Highway 95 will cross Sand Creek and follow the railroad tracks on the creek’s eastern edge. The 2.1-mile bypass will reconnect with the existing highway north of town.
Brad Daly, chief of the regulatory division for the corps’ Walla Walla District, said the draft permit will protect the creek while allowing for transportation needs.
Barbara Babic, a spokeswoman for the Idaho Transportation Department, called the corps’ draft permit “probably the most important issue that was still hanging out there.”
If the Transportation Department agrees to the corps’ conditions, the corps will issue a final permit allowing ITD to conduct the work in Sand Creek needed to build the bypass.
ITD plans to start advertising a bid package for the bypass in late October or early November, Babic said. Construction of the alternative highway will take three to four years, she said.
Byway opponents, however, immediately condemned the draft permit.
“We are very surprised that the corps would issue a draft permit based on the information they had,” said Liz Sedler, executive director of the North Idaho Community Action Network. “It totally impinges on the creek.”
The Sand Creek Byway has sparked controversy and litigation for years.
U.S. 95 – the state’s main north-south highway – cuts through Sandpoint’s downtown, where a series of 90-degree turns snarl traffic, leading to congestion and long waits. The route is heavily used by locals, skiers headed to Schweitzer Mountain Resort, pedestrians and summer tourists.
Last fall, elected officials from North Idaho urged state and federal agencies to speed up approval for the bypass, citing public safety concerns. But opponents said the new highway would jeopardize water quality, wildlife and the aesthetic look of Sandpoint’s historic downtown.
Sand Creek flows into Lake Pend Oreille and is a migratory route for westslope cutthroat trout. Sedler, whose group is suing the Federal Highway Administration over the bypass, said the project will destroy more than five acres of wetlands.
“Sand Creek is an important estuary for fish,” said Sedler, who added the area is also home to heron rookeries, wintering wildfowl and bald eagles. “Anytime you walk across Bridge Street in the wintertime, you will probably see an eagle sitting there in the cottonwoods.”
Daly said the permit was drafted to protect Sand Creek’s water quality and to mitigate for lost wetlands. It also addresses construction methods, when channel dredging can occur, and it protects fish passage, he said.