Three weeks after it was dedicated, and halfway through Sandpoint’s busy summer season, the much-anticipated Sand Creek Byway still isn’t open to traffic.
The most expensive state highway project ever in Idaho, the two-mile shortcut around downtown Sandpoint looks ready to take on trucks and travelers. But the contractor is working on a few final details before the Idaho Transportation Department opens the new section of U.S. Highway 95.
The agency now says it hopes to let drivers onto the byway by the end of the month, more than 3 1/2 years after construction began.
“We’re working as quickly as possible,” said Ken Sorensen, ITD’s resident engineer in Sandpoint. “Our goal is to get it open as fast as possible so people can get on it, use it.”
The contract for the project allows for a completion date this November, so an opening anytime before then is ahead of schedule, Sorensen said.
He added he has never put a firm completion date on the byway.
“I’d like to have been done six months ago,” he said. “I’d like to give it to the people as quick as possible. But we have a couple of items left to do, and when we get those done we’ll open the job.”
The Federal Highway Administration, which has oversight of the work, has scheduled its final inspection for Tuesday. An agency spokeswoman said the project is on track and scheduled to open next Friday.
That’s a week before the start of the community’s biggest event of the year, the Festival at Sandpoint. The 30th annual summer concert series runs Aug. 2-12 south of downtown on the shore of Lake Pend Oreille.
Downtown business owners are eager to see the byway provide long-desired relief from traffic congestion – especially the hundreds of tractor-trailer rigs that rumble through town daily.
“We’re all anxiously awaiting the opening,” said Jim Lippi, owner of Ivano’s Ristorante on First Avenue. “We’re just hoping it gets open soon, before summer’s over.”
A few years back, someone counted 1,500 commercial trucks snaking through downtown during a 12-hour period.
“I have an outdoor dining section, and it’s just not real nice when six cattle trucks from Canada come by,” Lippi said.
The byway will ease congestion downtown, open up room for more parking and make the city’s core a more attractive destination, he said.
“We’re looking forward to getting control of our downtown,” Lippi said. “We’re trying to get our busy season a little busier and our off season a little busier through tourism.”
Last winter the state said the new route should open to traffic in the spring or early summer, months earlier than initially expected.
Anticipating it would be open before the Fourth of July, community leaders organized a dedication for June 29 and invited state and local dignitaries.
“There’s lots of things in life you try to get done on a certain date, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen,” the ITD’s Sorensen said.
No ribbon was cut at the ceremony, and an ITD spokeswoman said the contractor was shooting for a mid-July opening.
“I know people were disappointed that it wasn’t open when we thought it was going to be open,” Sandpoint Mayor Marsha Ogilvie said.
“But I believe in the people who have put this together, who have been working on the project since day one,” Ogilvie said. “And ultimately when it opens we’re going to forget all this drama and we’re going to be very excited about this incredible byway.”
The contractor, Parsons RCI of Sumner, Wash., receives no incentive or bonus for finishing the job early, Sorensen said.
Parsons bid the project for $98.4 million. To date, construction has cost about $106.5 million, with change orders and overruns related to erosion control to protect Sand Creek, Sorensen said.
The contractor also has had to address some settling along the route, including the point where asphalt and concrete meet at the end of one bridge. That was to be expected, Sorensen said.
“There are places on this job that have settled more than three feet as we’ve been building,” he said. “We knew all that was going to happen, and that was all put into the design and the construction of the project.”
Here in the final days, the contractor is working through ITD’s “punch list,” the remaining tasks that must be completed to the state’s satisfaction before the byway can open.
“It takes 90 percent of the effort to get the last 10 percent of the job done,” Sorensen said. “And then we get to start on the paperwork. It’s no different than any other job. We always have things that we have to fix at the end before we call it substantially complete.”