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Gov. Little touts road funding, including for I-90 expansion, during North Idaho visit

UPDATED: Fri., June 25, 2021

Idaho Gov. Brad Little talks with Bonner Country Road and Bridge Director Steve Klatt on Thursday.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Idaho Gov. Brad Little talks with Bonner Country Road and Bridge Director Steve Klatt on Thursday. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

SAGLE, IDAHO – When Idaho Gov. Brad Little travels across his state, he said Thursday, one issue is “omnipresent.”

“The issue is just growth,” Little said. “Ninety percent of the conversation is, ‘What do we do about growth?’ ”

The Republican governor was speaking at one of the countless sites where that question has come up: at the intersection of U.S. Highway 95 and Lakeshore Drive, near the south end of the Long Bridge, which crosses Lake Pend Oreille, connecting Sagle to Sandpoint.

The Idaho Transportation Department has an answer about what to do there, at least in the near term.

In August, crews will begin work to create a new right turn lane from Lakeshore to southbound U.S. 95, as well as installing an acceleration lane for cars making a left onto the Long Bridge.

Next summer, they will continue to try to solve the dangerous intersection, by adding a U-turn at an as-yet-undetermined location between Lakeshore Drive and Bottle Bay Road to offer a safer option for those heading north. ITD also plans to install a new traffic signal at Sagle Road to break up the flow of traffic on U.S. 95.

That work will cost an estimated $8 million combined.

While those changes are expected to improve safety along the increasingly busy stretch of road where some 16,000 vehicles pass each day and 13 crashes occurred between 2015 and 2019, they won’t add up to a long-term solution.

“This is a temporary Band-Aid until we get a permanent fix,” said Damon Allen, district engineer for ITD.

It’s not clear when such a fix will come, but the state has allocated $3 million to help the transportation department start formulating one.

The money will be used to pay for an environmental study of the prospect of widening and improving U.S. 95 from Lakeshore Drive south to Sagle, where plans for improvements to the highway currently end.

That study is one of a large number of transportation projects Little and the Idaho Legislature funded during their last session.

Through a combination of federal COVID-relief funds and surplus money from the state’s general fund, the Gem State allocated some $184 million on road projects, including $3 million for an environmental study that’s a prerequisite for building the long-awaited Huetter Bypass.

The Idaho Transportation Board was expected to vote on funding for a slate of other ambitious projects paid for with a new fund seeded with new sales tax money and invested in bonds.

While sales taxes in the state didn’t increase, the share that goes to transportation projects did go up, from 1% to 4.5%.

Republican state Sen. Jim Woodward, of Sagle, said that will lead to a pot of some $80 million of money that will grow to around $1.5 billion in “less than a decade.”

The project of most significance to North Idaho is $5 million for an environmental review of a plan to expand Interstate 90 from Sherman Avenue in Coeur d’Alene to the Washington state line.

If all goes according to plan, work to construct a wider I-90 could begin in 18 months, said Marvin Fenn, ITD engineering manager.

Despite the bulk of the funds heading to other parts of Idaho, state Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, said he believes the region is getting a “fair shake for our population.”

Little touted the state’s efforts to catch up with increased demands on its highway infrastructure.

“We put in the biggest transportation-funding increase in the history of the state,” he said.

But he acknowledged that “record growth” makes it difficult to keep pace with all the newcomers and their cars.

“We need to make this place ugly,” Little joked, looking out at the Long Bridge crossing over the lake and before the mountains.

With that strategy unlikely to work, the governor said it’s important for state government to stay on top of its infrastructure needs.

“My goal is that our children and grandchildren will choose to stay here,” he said, “and unplanned and willy-nilly growth is not conducive to that.”

Editor’s note: This story was corrected to remove references to transit projects, as the funding is directed at road projects. 

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