Home | News | Where's the Off Ramp?

Where's the Off Ramp?

Font size: Decrease font Enlarge font

by Francis Ogilvie

This could potentially be the question being asked by motorists traveling south on the byway and marveling at Sandpoint's attractions - Sand Creek, City Beach, Lake Pend Oreille, Cedar Street Bridge, historic downtown Sandpoint - yet unable to find a way to get to them. Vehicles that miss the Sandpoint exit in Ponderay would be forced to backtrack to Sandpoint by turning around at the far end of the Long Bridge - an unlikely, inconvenient and unsafe prospect at best. This concern is only one of several reasons the city believes additional access at the southern interchange is critical.
    The City of Sandpoint and the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) have been discussing byway design for a number of years. ITD engineers were originally reluctant to include provisions for a full or 3/4 interchange (south off ramp) due to concerns that the additional local and regional traffic might compromise their goal of improving traffic flow on US 95. The city has held the view that the addition of a southbound off ramp must be considered an essential design element. Fortunately, both parties appear to now be in agreement.
    This is due in large part to ITD's extensive public involvement process. Over the last two years they have facilitated the development of the Sand Creek Master Plan as a precursor to the actual Byway design. A Citizen Design Advisory Committee is currently involved with that process. Several additional committees have been active during this time, providing public input on a wide range of other design and structural elements. Public informational meetings have also been another means for gathering comments. This input, in addition to survey results, has indicated the community feels strongly the south off ramp is an important concern. Project designers have responded to that concern by including plans for a south auxiliary lane which will feed into a later off ramp.
    How the off ramp itself will be funded and when it might be built are yet to be determined. Cost estimates for the ramp are currently at $4 million dollars. This is outside of funding that has already been allocated for the project, which is why the city could end up with a lane - but no ramp. At the moment, ITD intends to build the off ramp down the road (so to speak) when funding becomes available. This might not happen for up to 14 years in the future. That scenario is unfair to Sandpoint for a number of reasons, beginning with the negative economic impact to the city. 
    That view is supported by the ITD commissioned 1991 Robison Economic Impact Study for the Highway 95 North and South Project. Although the study is over ten years old, its findings are still valid given Sandpoint's continued reliance on visitors and tourism for economic stability. The study projects the approximate percentage of traffic that will be removed from city streets and estimates that there will be a substantial reduction in annual spending. It states retail trade is the city's largest employer and estimates a significant decrease in annual income. It goes on to say that visitors account for 23% of Sandpoint employment, 17% of all income; and that income from destination travelers must increase 21% to compensate for reduced through-stop traffic. Insufficient existing data and the large number of variables resulted in some of these estimates being offered as a product of "informal judgment," but the overall picture it painted was at times alarming. I have to include one other quote that was right on target. "Uncertainty is a strange thing. Sometimes it's a social and political lubricant that facilitates compromise and agreement. Other times it's a fuel that feeds the fires of controversy, conflict and disagreement. The latter has been the case for this project." No need for "informal judgment" there.
    One unanswered question in the study was "Will the positive economic benefits of reduced downtown traffic be large enough to outweigh the reduction in visitor spending?" That question would also apply to the loss of spending by local and regional traffic that would no longer be passing through town. Certainly, decreasing congestion will provide new opportunities for revitalization, solutions to parking problems, and an enhanced ability to craft an attractive downtown product to draw people into the area. If Sandpoint is to capitalize on those opportunities improved access to recreational amenities, services and businesses is crucial. A simple equation - increased community access equals increased spending - might affect the ultimate answer to the above question.
    Providing an alternative entry into Sandpoint will also address several other concerns. A single entry point at the north end of town will eventually lead to traffic congestion at that point. Even with the current and future improvements on Fifth Avenue and Highway 2, the area immediately north of the Chamber of Commerce will continue to be a single lane in each direction creating a potential bottleneck. A second entry point would ease that concern. The byway construction period will also have a negative effect on Sandpoint's economy, and will involve a recovery period. Avoiding a second construction impact, as well as a higher future cost to taxpayers, will allow our local economy to stabilize more quickly. In addition, emergency personnel have expressed concerns about better provisions for emergency access for the area between the interchanges. The off ramp would provide the most direct route to accidents, injuries or spills. The amount of hazardous materials that will be moving through this transportation corridor, either by train or truck, will create the potential for a disastrous incident without sufficient emergency access.
     The Sandpoint City Council recently assigned a high priority status to the off ramp issue in order to address these concerns. A team made up of city staff members and elected officials was formed several months ago to identify procedural questions, research potential funding sources, and develop an action plan. Informational packets were prepared and presented by team members to a number of local groups and governmental entities soliciting support for the city's efforts to procure the necessary funding. Each formal contact to date has been fully supportive. Community support will be an important element in building momentum and achieving our funding goal.
    There are two funding possibilities that are being pursued, and both would be allocated in the 2004 construction year. This is the initial year that funding could be applied for, due to the requirement that funds be spent in the year that they are allocated. One option is having the off ramp designated as a high priority project in the next Federal Highway Bill, which is expected to be approved in early 2004. The byway project has already received approximately $12 million dollars through this process. The second is through the annual Federal Appropriations Bill. Each year, in deciding how federal highway funds will be spent, Congress designates what's known as "earmarked" funding for specific projects. Although highly competitive, this is a also a viable option.
    The Idaho Congressional Delegation has been contacted regarding the necessity of having the off ramp built concurrently with the byway project, and initial reaction has been supportive. A meeting is also scheduled with the Idaho Transportation Board in mid-July to enlist their support.
    One other obstacle still remains, which is federal approval of the Environmental Assessment (EA) that will be submitted by ITD in the fall. When changes are made from the original Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) they must be re-submitted in the form of an EA. Approval of the EA benefits greatly if the changes proposed receive community support - a statement repeated often by ITD representatives.
    The city would like to obtain as much documented support as possible for funding construction of the south off ramp as a companion or inclusive project to the byway. If you would like to join these efforts, please write a letter of support to the City of Sandpoint at 1123 Lake Street, Sandpoint 83864, attention Darlene Edwards, or call, fax, or stop by the Sand Creek Byway Public Information Office at 202 2nd Avenue, Suite B. Tel. (208) 265-0897 Fax. (208) 265-2097.
    Francis Ogilvie is a Sandpoint businessman and a member of the Sandpoint City Council.

Subscribe to comments feed Comments (0 posted)

total: | displaying:

Post your comment

  • Bold
  • Italic
  • Underline
  • Quote

Please enter the code you see in the image:

  • Email to a friend Email to a friend
  • Print version Print version
  • Plain text Plain text

Author info


Tagged as:

No tags for this article

Rate this article