To a North Idaho motorist crawling along in peak-hour traffic on U.S. Highway 95, it seems that the only thing slower is the bureaucratic congestion that has stalled a road-widening project there.
At a legislative hearing two weeks ago, state Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, aired his frustration with delays over an environmental impact statement that needs to be resolved before the 31.5-mile Garwood-to-Sagle can advance. Last Thursday, having been awakened by an inquiry from Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick’s office, the Walla Walla District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hand-delivered copies of an administrative final EIS to the Federal Highway Administration and the Idaho Transportation Department.
All this some 16 months after the ITD submitted its final environmental impact statement to the corps and requested a 45- to 90-day comment period.
Expanding the capacity of the north-south route south of Sandpoint has been under study for years, as population in the Panhandle has grown and congestion has reached maddening proportions. Although crashes occur along that portion of U.S. 95 about the same rate as on similar Idaho highways, ITD says characteristics of the route result in proportionately more fatalities.
Moreover, the department predicts that traffic volume, which is up 50 percent since 1990, will increase at that pace through at least 2030.
Meanwhile, the project that’s supposed to mitigate the danger and soften the inconvenience moves at a steamroller’s pace – when it moves at all.
As envisioned, widening the two-lane highway to four divided lanes with controlled access will reduce the likelihood of accidents, but it will take the full 10-year life of a special highway funding strategy engineered by former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne just to complete less than half of the Garwood-Sagle link.
Meanwhile, dozens of businesses and homeowners who are expected to be impacted by the enlarged right-of-way are forced to wait and wonder what’s going to happen.
Now that the EIS process has been roused from its coma, there is no reason to think the process will accelerate appreciably. More meetings and more review await. And during the prolonged delay, the Garwood-Sagle project fell off the 2009 round of highway-funding scheduled for Kempthorne’s GARVEE bonds.
It shouldn’t be necessary to politicize fundamental government services. But in this case, North Idahoans can be thankful that Eskridge howled about the delays and Minnick intervened.