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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

U.S. 95 accidents killed 29 in 2004

Cars stream along U.S. Highway 95 north of Athol, Idaho.
 (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Twenty-nine people died during 2004 – more than two a month – on U.S. Highway 95, which remains among the most dangerous major highways in Idaho.

The dead ranged in age from 7 to 88 years old, and the wrecks happened on a roughly 500-mile stretch from just south of Canada to just north of Boise.

Certainly, recklessness was involved in some of the fatal wrecks, as well as alcohol and lack of seat belts. But the road itself has a reputation for being dangerous.

The Spokesman-Review asked the Idaho State Police for all fatal-accident reports along U.S. 95 since 1999. That first year was the worst with 35 fatalities, and 2004 was the second-worst of the six years in which fatalities have been tracked. On average, the highway has claimed more than two lives every month since 1999.

The highway – dubbed the Goat Trail by critics for its twisty route along rivers and through mountains – has become the target of many improvement projects.

And this year, a proposal may speed up funding and construction for some of those projects – including major efforts on U.S. 95 between Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint.

Chuck Winder, chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board, said the board has made upgrading U.S. 95 a top priority and will continue to do so.

“It needs to be fixed,” Winder said. “It needs to have more capacity, and it needs to be safer for people to drive on.”

Plan in works

A proposal now being worked up by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne to issue bonds against future federal highway allocations could allow more of U.S. 95 to be upgraded sooner. Kempthorne is expected to unveil his bonding plan in his State of the State message to the Legislature on Jan. 10.

The bonds are a special type authorized by Congress in 1995 called Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle, or GARVEE, bonds. Fourteen states already are using the bonds, including California, Arizona and Colorado, and four more have authorized the bonds but not used them yet.

GARVEE bonding would allow Idaho to borrow against future years’ payments, thus getting more of the money up-front and being able to do bigger projects sooner. No state tax money would be needed to pay off the bonds.

The tax-free bonds count on allocations of federal highway funds to states continuing – a good bet, because they always have. Idaho now gets about $200 million a year in federal highway funds and has received substantial funds each year since at least 1918.

U.S. 95 is the only highway connecting northern and southern Idaho. The route is particularly dangerous because of old, narrow sections, heavy car and truck traffic, and a wide mix of weather conditions as it spans the state, Winder said. “We need to make it safer for everybody.”

Projects to expand sections of U.S. 95 to four lanes and to remove dangerous curves have helped, Winder said. But more work clearly is needed.

Winder said one project in the works – but not yet funded – would upgrade the stretch from Coeur d’Alene to Sandpoint to a limited-access, divided freeway. That’s a perfect example of a project that could benefit from GARVEE bonding, he said.

“It could move that up significantly,” he said. “That’s really what we’re looking at – if we’ve got projects that are out there maybe eight or 10 years, if we can move them ahead, get them done maybe in a five- or six-year window, we will improve the capacity of the system as well as the safety for those using the system.”

Already, there is a new bridge at Westmond and four-lane stretches from Garwood to Chilco, near Cocolalla and in Sagle, but the heart of the Coeur d’Alene-to-Sandpoint improvement does not yet have construction funding, said Scott Stokes, District 1 engineer for the Idaho Transportation Department.

“We want to upgrade Highway 95 to a modern, four-lane highway with interchanges,” he said.

Traffic volume on all North Idaho highways – from Interstate 90 to U.S. 95 to state Highway 41 – has increased between 33 percent to 84 percent, depending on the exact location, since 1990 as population has boomed, Stokes said.

Kempthorne has promised that his proposal will include highway projects all around the state – an important tactic if he’s to gain support from lawmakers. Among the projects that could make the list are building at least a segment of the new Indian Valley route at the southern end of U.S. 95 near Boise, upgrading Highway 20-26 in the Idaho Falls area, improving Highway 75 in the Hailey-Ketchum area and building a bypass in the Twin Falls area. U.S. Highway 26, which winds between Gooding and Arco, is ranked the worst in the state for its fatality rate over the most recent five-year period.

‘Not the end-all answer’

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, who long has pushed for upgrading U.S. 95, said the bonding plan might actually save money by avoiding inflationary increases in the cost of road construction projects. “You would do this using today’s dollars and expenses, and certainly the cost of highway construction has been inflated every year in the recent past, so you might avoid some additional expense that you would incur if you waited,” he said.

The bond idea “merits consideration,” he said, particularly if it can help fix U.S. 95. “Those areas of Highway 95 that still follow the roadbed that was put out in 1939 are no longer adequate – there’s an extreme safety situation in many of those areas,” he said. “Cars simply didn’t go as fast and trucks weren’t as big in 1939. So the highway has not been upgraded to meet modern expectations of a highway.”

Winder stressed that GARVEE bonds can’t pay for everything and that their usefulness depends in large part on how much in bonding lawmakers authorize.

“This is just a part of what’s needed to fund improvements throughout the state – it’s not the end-all answer,” he said.

For example, the bonds likely couldn’t cover taking U.S. 95 to four lanes all the way from Lewiston to Coeur d’Alene, Winder said, if they’re still to include projects in other parts of the state.

“We’ll continue to make Highway 95 a priority whether GARVEE bonds pass or not,” Winder said, “but if they do pass, I think you’ll have a better road system with greater capacity, and I think it’ll be safer for people to use.”

Capt. Wayne Longo, commander of the Idaho State Police patrol units in North Idaho, said more funding for state troopers would be welcome, too.

“We haven’t seen an increase in staffing here” in about 20 years. Longo said. With booming population growth and the higher traffic volumes, state troopers usually jump from call to call.

“As the area grows and we respond just from service call to service call, we have less chance to be proactive and just get out there and write citations for aggressive driving,” Longo said. “We are starting to see the effects of not doing that.”

Longo noted the apparent irony of a high number of wrecks – and fatalities – along areas of U.S. 95 that “we might consider to be good roads – like Garwood to Chilco where it’s four lanes,” he said.

“I think people get frustrated in the two-lane traffic and then when they get a chance to go fast they go very, very fast,” Longo said. In the rare four-lane segments of U.S. 95, “we get people going 80, 85 miles per hour. Sometimes 90.”