Sandpoint byway work likely to test patience

Traffic was backed up on the Long Bridge in Sandpoint on Wednesday, June 3, 2009. Since the Sand Creek  Byway construction started, summer traffic through Sandpoint, which is usually a snarl, has been worse than usual.  (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Traffic was backed up on the Long Bridge in Sandpoint on Wednesday, June 3, 2009. Since the Sand Creek Byway construction started, summer traffic through Sandpoint, which is usually a snarl, has been worse than usual. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Tempers flared this week when the Sand Creek Byway project snarled Sandpoint traffic up to two miles in each direction from the Long Bridge. Embankment and utility work at the southern end of the project dropped traffic down to one lane for a few days.

But engineers with the Idaho Transportation Department say residents and travelers might need to exercise some patience. The four-year project started only in November and is bound to create congestion from time to time, which will add to Sandpoint’s typically clogged summer traffic.

When complete, the 2.1-mile, $98 million byway will run from the north end of the Long Bridge to the intersection of U.S. Highway 95 and state Highway 200. It will stretch just east of downtown Sandpoint and span Sand Creek. It will parallel railroad tracks, run past a marina and cut between the city’s downtown and its popular beach.

As a result, stakeholders in the project were many and varied. Demands and agreements from numerous parties have made the project one of the most complicated Ken Sorensen of the ITD has ever worked on. It is the largest transportation construction project the state has ever bid out, he said.

“There’s not a day on this job where there isn’t some restriction on what we can and cannot do,” said Sorensen, the project’s resident engineer. “Just when you think you’ve got it handled, something comes and hits you on the side of the head.”

Among the complications:

• Soil in Sandpoint doesn’t drain well, so up to 400 dump truck loads of dirt are hauled away from the project site daily, with good soil then hauled in.

• Four trains per hour chug past on tracks just feet from where contractors are building the byway. A track master spends the whole day in constant contact with the railroad to make sure construction doesn’t interfere with the trains.

• The railroad required a 20-foot-high sample embankment be built and tested to ensure the byway’s embankment would be stable.

• To protect Sand Creek, a wall of 60-foot-high, interlocking steel panels were driven into the ground east of the waterway to separate it from the construction zone.

• Because there was no room for a wastewater pond at the project’s south end, a complicated water purification system was installed to clean water from the site and test it before returning it to Sand Creek.

• Periodically, a “bird monitor” hired by ITD to satisfy state environmental requirements visits the site to make sure migration and nesting are not disturbed.

But last week, the issue at the forefront was traffic.

Residents filled a weekly construction update meeting on Thursday demanding to know why contractors couldn’t work at night. ITD engineers said the contract with general contractor Parsons RCI of Sumner, Wash., restricts work to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday, due to noise concerns expressed by neighbors. They said the contract could not be changed because it would open the ITD to lawsuits from others who bid on the project.

“Anything we do, someone’s going to complain,” Sorensen said.

“You’re probably going to experience inconveniences off and on all four years,” said Andrea Storjohann, an ITD engineer. “We knew this week was going to be bad.”

A couple of residents said the traffic the city experienced last week is typical for summer in Sandpoint. City Councilwoman Carrie Logan disagreed.

“The reality was we didn’t have these issues until you were working across the highway. And you’re not going to always be working across the highway. To me, these seven or eight days are not typical. They’re rather atypical,” Logan said. “What is typical is the congestion we’ve all lived through for the 20-plus years we’ve been here. That’s reality and, hello, that’s why we’re creating the route we are, to help with that congestion.”

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