June 4, 2012 in City, Idaho

North Idaho police warn bypass trespassers

Long-awaited Sandpoint shortcut expected to open late June
By The Spokesman-Review
Video: Sandpoint’s new highway bypass
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

Traffic on U.S. Highway 95 in Sandpoint is routed under and around the on-ramp of the new bypass on the south end of the project that will take through traffic around the congested downtown streets.
(Full-size photo)

The Sand Creek Byway’s anticipated opening date isn’t until June 29, but some impatient drivers and pedestrians are slipping behind barriers and orange construction cones to try out U.S. Highway 95’s $110 million shortcut around Sandpoint’s historic downtown.

“It’s almost done; it looks done, but it’s still an active construction site,” said Barbara Babic, an Idaho Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

“I guess it’s just too tempting for people,” she added. “This isn’t kids; it is soccer moms and grown-ups – people who should know better.”

Local police have issued warnings to violators, alerting them that they’re trespassing and face the risk of fines.

Ponderay police Chief Michael Hutter recently stopped a sheepish pedestrian walking his dog on the byway. The man knew the 2.1-mile byway wasn’t open yet, but thought he could slip through unnoticed.

Hutter hasn’t issued any citations yet, but he has escorted unauthorized vehicles off the byway. Some ramps are open for vehicle traffic from contractors and construction crews, so there is a chance that drivers could get confused, he said.

He’d be more likely to ticket a vehicle caught blatantly driving around a construction barrier.

“Mostly, it’s curiosity,” Sandpoint police Chief Mark Lockwood said of drivers’ motives for trespass.

People have seen aerial photos of the byway’s progress on the Idaho Transportation Department’s website, and they’re eager to test the long-awaited shortcut, he said. Sandpoint’s police department fields a few reports each week of unauthorized vehicles on the byway, which starts at Sandpoint’s Long Bridge and ends at the intersection of U.S. 95 and Highway 200.

The byway crosses Sand Creek and follows the creek’s eastern shore.

The bypass was designed to unsnarl traffic in the resort town of Sandpoint, where local traffic shares the streets with drivers of U.S. 95, Idaho’s main north-south highway. A series of stoplights and 90-degree turns results in frequent congestion and long waits. The new bypass is expected to cut about 10 to 15 minutes off a trip through Sandpoint.

State engineers first proposed the Sand Creek Byway in the 1950s, but the project was delayed by years of litigation and controversy. The work finally started in late 2008.

At the moment, the contractor – Parsons RCI Inc. – is replacing about 350 square feet of concrete roadway near the byway’s southern end, which is one reason state officials are concerned about trespassing. “A large chunk of the road is missing,” the Idaho Transportation Department’s Babic said.

The section being replaced included a “transition zone” between asphalt and concrete where settling and cracks had appeared, she said.

The official dedication of the Sand Creek Byway is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on June 29, which is when state officials expect the route to open to vehicle traffic. However, “we may not know until days before whether it will be ready then,” Babic said.

The byway’s bike/pedestrian path might take a little longer to open to the public because the contractor will be using the path to install sprinklers and complete an extensive landscaping project along the path.

Final details on the byway will be completed this summer and fall. Parsons RCI must complete its contract for the byway by November, Babic said.

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