Visitors to Silverwood Theme Park often find the last thrill ride of the day is pulling out of the parking lot back onto Highway 95.
For drivers leaving the park and headed south toward Coeur d’Alene, that hair-raising left turn across traffic will soon be only a memory.
The busy highway is being rebuilt past the park, and a new interchange at the south end of Silverwood will give visitors smoother and safer passage.
It’s overdue, said Gary Norton, Silverwood’s founder.
“It’s terrible. Been terrible for years. It’s very, very dangerous,” Norton said. “You’re trying to turn off and cross with 65 mph traffic and thousands of people and cars. We have accidents virtually every year here.”
The upgrades near the park are part of $57 million in improvements on tap between Chilco Road to the south and the top of Granite Hill north of Athol. This 12-mile stretch of highway will be widened to four lanes to absorb traffic flows that exceed 20,000 vehicles a day at the height of summer.
A grassy median will separate the northbound and southbound lanes.
The Idaho Department of Transportation also will build four full interchanges: at Chilco Road, at Bunco Road/Brunner Road serving the Silverwood area, at Highway 54 in Athol, and at Granite Loop Road.
The project will run through the 2013 construction season. The contractor is Scarsella Brothers Inc. of Kent, Wash.
The work already has begun with construction of a frontage road just east of Highway 95 past Silverwood. Traffic will be shifted onto that two-lane road within the next two weeks, allowing workers to rip up the old highway and start building the wider grade.
During construction, Silverwood visitors will access the parking lot from the new frontage road to the east. At that spot, a signal or four-way stop will regulate the intersection of highway travelers and park visitors.
“For visitors to Silverwood, things will look different perhaps than when you were there last summer,” but everything will be clearly marked, said Barbara Babic, ITD’s public involvement coordinator for North Idaho.
Parking for visitors with disabilities will move from the front gate area of Silverwood to the general parking lot.
The pedestrian tunnel under the highway, linking the parking lot to Silverwood’s main gate, has been lengthened for the wider highway to come.
The state has spent years widening Highway 95 in the Panhandle. The state has no identified schedule or funding for finishing the job all the way to Sagle.
The work is funded by a type of bonds known as GARVEE (grant anticipation revenue vehicles), in which the state borrows against its future federal highway allocations.