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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting There: U.S. 95 expansion could bypass Sagle in North Idaho

SAGLE, Idaho – The Idaho Transportation Department is exploring an expansion of U.S. Highway 95 that could bypass the unincorporated town of Sagle south of Sandpoint.

The state is considering the alternative route in response to feedback from a town hall last fall, Heather McDaniel, Idaho Transportation Department spokesperson, said.

The department’s original proposal would keep the current path of the highway through Sagle, but would expand to a four-lane divided highway with frontage roads on both sides and two interchanges through the six-mile stretch from Dufort Road to Lakeshore Drive, just before Long Bridge over Lake Pend Oreille.

This preferred concept would require obtaining significant rights of way from businesses in town, which has led state transportation officials to consider a more rural route around the town as an alternative option.

Both options still are on the table. The project is in the early planning stages and nothing has been decided yet, McDaniel said.

However, some kind of expansion needs to address traffic and safety as the area around Sagle grows more congested, according to ITD.

U.S. 95 is an international corridor that links Canada to Mexico. Traffic through Sagle is expected to increase from 17,000 vehicles a day in 2022 to 30,000 by 2045.

A divided highway with controlled access would allow a higher speed limit.

For about a mile in town the speed limit currently drops to 45 mph and the road expands from two lanes to four plus a turning lane. There is one stop light at the intersection of Sagle Road.

Some residents worry that detouring traffic away from the businesses could kill the town. They point 20 miles south to Athol, Idaho, which was bypassed 10 years ago. The highway used to go through the center of town, but now motorists have to exit on an interchange.

Businesses along the highway in Sagle include a gas station, a couple of coffee stands, RV parks, storage facilities, and heavy equipment and car dealers.

McDaniel said ITD will consider these concerns as it continues to collect public input and gauge the response from property owners. Another open house will be held sometime this fall.

A preliminary design for the alternative route would curve just east of Sagle, from about Roy Road to north of Gun Club Road and Monarch Road.

Monica Gunter said the alternative route cuts straight through her 100-year-old family farm, as well as her son’s and daughter’s new houses.

“This is a huge deal,” Gunter said. She is asking for letters to oppose the project.

Luke Omodt, chair of the Bonner County Commissioners, said the county has no authority.

“All that is being done at this time is exploring options,” Omodt said. “It is an extremely early stage.”

He also emphasized that there is no funding in place and that any project is at least a decade away.

McDaniel said ITD views eminent domain – the government’s right to take private property for public use in exchange for fair compensation – as a last resort.

“We would much rather go through negotiations with property owners,” McDaniel said.

Residents have also questioned the ability of the project to reduce traffic since Long Bridge over Lake Pend Oreille is still a bottleneck with only two lanes.

McDaniel said the bridge could be expanded in the future, but it would not be part of this project.

The preferred concept design came from recommendations from environmental impact studies in 1999 and 2010. ITD is in the middle of re-evaluating and updating those studies.

Some residents have recently received requests to allow engineering surveyors onto their property.

Todd Scalia, who owns White Barn Ranch, a livestock farm and rustic wedding venue south of Sagle, said the lane expansion would cut into wetlands on his property. The area is a pinch point because BNSF Railway tracks run parallel to the other side of the highway.

A strip of trees along his side of the highway descends on a hillside to Algoma Lake, shallow wetlands that make important habitat for birds and wildlife.

“We just feel terrible for that part of it,” Scalia said.

The narrow stretch of land is a well-used game trail he observes on trail cameras. A resident moose calves there every year and bald eagles that hunt from the lake nest in the trees.

Scalia said the project could also affect his business since the lake is a scenic spot for wedding photos.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.