It’s shoulder season in Sandpoint. The summer crowds have dispersed and skiers have a couple of months to wait until the slopes open.
But there is a bustle in town along the new Sand Creek Byway, the two-mile shortcut around downtown.
The new alignment for U.S. Highway 95 opened two months ago and is a hit both with travelers and local business owners.
Sandpoint feels like a small town for the first time in decades, said Kim Duffy, owner of Blue Moon Cafe in the Cedar Street Bridge Public Market.
“I’ve seen people I haven’t seen in quite a while just coming down to see what it looks like,” Duffy said.
So far, between 7,000 and 10,000 vehicles a day are using the byway, which the state built over 3 1/2 years at a cost of more than $106.5 million.
“There still is substantial traffic downtown, but it’s traffic we want. It’s people that came into Sandpoint on purpose, and it seems to have revived some of that small-town vibe,” said Doug Fluckiger, owner of Silver Creek Studio downtown.
As recently as midsummer, thousands of tractor-trailers and other commercial trucks would jam downtown daily, making sharp turns following the highway through downtown blocks and making life unpleasant for shop owners and their customers.
Now the livestock, log and freight trucks are zipping past on the 45 mph bypass, saving time and money. Sand Creek Byway runs from the northern end of the Long Bridge along Sand Creek to Highway 95 north of the city.
The daily traffic counts for the byway are about 8,500 vehicles midweek, 9,600 on Friday and 7,200 on Sunday, according to Michael Porcelli, a traffic engineer for the Idaho Transportation Department.
That represents about one-fourth of the average daily traffic counted on the old Highway 95 alignment downtown. Automated traffic recorders capturing the northbound and southbound flow at Fifth and Larch streets showed an average daily volume of 34,772 vehicles from July 2011 through June 2012.
Completion of the byway – the costliest highway construction project in Idaho history – also has allowed residents to rediscover Sand Creek, which flows lazily toward Lake Pend Oreille between downtown and the byway.
The state put in a wide path along the creek with connections to downtown, including at the historic Cedar Street Bridge that spans Sand Creek and serves as a marketplace and footbridge.
Cooking at her cafe, Duffy has seen a steady stream of swimmers, kayakers, bicyclists, skaters and dog walkers on the new path.
“There’s people using it from dawn to dusk,” she said.
The byway also has shifted the focus onto the lake, Duffy said.
“It’s like a new picture into Sandpoint. It’s fabulous,” she said. “We never saw it as such a water world, but it is.”
Fluckiger, too, applauded the improvements.
“It has moved the center of downtown toward the lake,” he said. “It used to be, here’s the lake, here’s Sand Creek, here’s Sandpoint. Now there’s all this activity over there. … It’s beautiful.”
Downtown merchants are eager to see other planned improvements to traffic flow. The state plans to start work next year on “The Curve,” a $7.5 million realignment of U.S. 2 through the city’s core.
That project will free up Pine Street, First Avenue and Cedar Street to return to use as two-way city streets with ample on-street parking.
“I think the key is not just the tourists, it’s to bring the locals back downtown to that old familiar town they used to know, where they could find parking and walk and not feel pressure,” Duffy said.