MOSCOW – An effort to widen the last 6.5 miles of U.S. Highway 95 between Lewiston and Moscow may be changing course.
The Palouse Ridge Defense Coalition has appealed Idaho Chief U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s ruling that the Federal Highway Administration and Idaho Transportation Department complied with federal laws and regulations “by the slimmest margin,” while preparing an environmental impact statement for the highway’s realignment from Thorn Creek to Moscow.
In Aug. 2016, the group sued ITD and the highway administration, claiming they violated the National Environmental Policy Act, executive orders and their own regulations. However, the court ruled in favor of the federal and state departments on Aug. 29.
The coalition appealed Winmill’s decision last month.
Palouse Ridge Defense Coalition member Steve Flint questions whether officials with the department had the route chosen before any environmental assessment was done, as the route ITD is moving forward with will destroy a large segment of the Palouse Prairie.
The broadleaf plants native to the prairie ecosystem once covered the Palouse before agriculture became introduced to the area. Less than 1 percent of the Palouse Prairie remains today and many of those sections are on rocky portions of hillsides, where the land is too shallow to plow, similar to Paradise Ridge.
Flint said the state’s current route – running nearest the ridge – will introduce noxious weeds that will take over the segment, among the prairie’s largest.
“You lose a native system with all the creatures that go with it,” Flint said.
There are three proposed routes for the widened highway: one to the west, the central route, which is preferred by the coalition, and the eastern route, which was the state’s pick.
Flint said the coalition would prefer the highway realignment to move forward with the central route, as the prairie will not be affected, fewer game will be in the roadway, and fewer homes, wetlands and crops will be impacted.
Ken Helm, ITD project manager, said after widening U.S. 95 from Lewiston to Thorn Creek, the highway has seen a 75 percent drop in fatalities.
“We anticipate the same for the last 6.5 miles (of U.S. 95),” Helm said. “That probably could save three or four fatalities and serious injury accidents per year.”
Flint said he’s not against a four-lane divided highway. It’s necessary, he said. But ITD is trying to put it in the wrong place.
“We’re not out to delay things,” he said. “It’s ITD staying with that eastern route. It’s up to them to make the change.”
It’s unknown when a decision will be made on the appeal, filed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Helm said he will continue with the design of the project and evaluating right-of-way appraisals. The project is expected to begin next year and be completed in 2020. A complete description of routes is available at us95thorncreek.com.
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