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Tue., Sept. 2, 2008, midnight

Our view: But Sandpoint bypass must meet highest standards

When you look at the artist’s rendering of what the Idaho Department of Transportation has envisioned for the Sand Creek bypass near Sandpoint, it’s very impressive. Bike paths, walkways and tasteful landscaping are featured throughout the 2.1 mile project that would connect U.S. 95 from the north end of the Long Bridge to State Route 200.

Now the state will get a chance to deliver, because the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals turned down arguments from the North Idaho Community Action Network. We doubt this will end opponents’ efforts to stop the bypass, but they can’t be encouraged by this swift rejection from a court generally sympathetic to environmental appeals. Oral arguments were Aug. 25. The notice from the court came only two days later.

The idea of building a road around Sandpoint has been debated for more than 50 years. The geography of the city, butting up to Lake Pend Oreille, has made a bypass a big challenge. But with population gains and increasing tourism, reasons for the bypass grow stronger every day.

Opponents can take solace in the fact that their arguments will end up improving the project. Just imagine what it might look like had it been built in the 1950s, when environmental and wildlife concerns were readily dismissed.

We understand the trepidation with such a large project in an area that has worked hard to maintain its small-town charm. But Bonner County has experienced a large growth spurt, and the area can be quite congested during summer festivals and winter ski season.

Sandpoint is home to the biggest chokepoint along the long length of U.S. 95. Passers-through, including truckers, must negotiate a series of 90-degree turns, and that keeps traffic crawling. Pedestrians must count on the kindness of motorists.

Rerouting this zigzagging traffic is long overdue, but the environmental concerns are real. The six bridges and 24 retaining walls must be constructed with care and with an eye toward maintaining the city’s appealing lakefront image. Plus, the Idaho Transportation Department still has that black eye from 2001 when a highway reconstruction project caused tons of mud to tumble into Mica Bay in Lake Coeur d’Alene. With that in mind, ITD has even more incentive to deliver a high-quality Sand Creek bypass.

The agency has cleared the formidable hurdles set forth in environmental law. Multiple court rulings affirm that diligence. It’s time to stop talking and start building.

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