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Sandpoint's Traffic Problem

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If they close their eyes, will it go away?

Rush hour. It’s 5 pm and traffic in Sandpoint is backed up. Oh, not clogged like traffic in Spokane, nor even like traffic in Coeur d’Alene, but for those who think it should be the same as it was 20 years ago, traffic is a mess. In the heart of downtown, tired workers sit on cross streets trying to enter traffic headed south on Pine; a few give up trying to merge with the non-stop flow and go the long way around, entering Cedar St. at the light on Second, heading south by first going north. A precious few cars with out-of-area plates sit forlornly at intersections, thinking they’re somehow going to manage to make a left hand turn.

Locals sit in the clouds of exhaust and fume about Sandpoint’s traffic problem. Some vent their frustration on people who oppose the construction of a bypass down Sand Creek. The bypass, they say, has been argued about for long enough. The time to build it is now.

Others vent their frustration at a city government they feel is ignoring its responsibility to deal with traffic in town. Of those, close to 200 businesses have participated in a campaign designed, in part, to draw attention to their belief that a bypass in Sand Creek won’t address most of Sandpoint’s traffic issues, and to encourage city government to become pro-active in finding solutions.

Peter Mico is one of those local business owners. His business, Spuds Rotisserie and Grill, is located on First Avenue downtown. It overlooks Sand Creek; an attribute he believes will be irrevocably damaged should a highway be built along the waterfront facing his deck. It also sits at one of the more problematic junctions in town – the corner of First and Pine streets. Traffic is an issue he deals with every day, and is one he feels is imperative for the city to address.

“What people don’t understand, or don’t want to believe, is that even the Idaho Transportation Department admits a bypass won’t address Sandpoint’s traffic problems,” Mico explained. “Their own estimates say that at the time the bypass is completed, there will be MORE traffic in downtown Sandpoint, not less. As business owners, we do not accept the city’s stance that the bypass is the answer to our problems – it’s not. And it’s time for the city to step up to the plate and begin working on these issues.”

Mico says he’s seen traffic in front of his business at “almost a standstill” but adds that traffic, “at this stage, is at certain peak times.” He cites rush hour, when locals commute to and from work in the early morning and late afternoon, and traffic related to tourism, “maybe one or two months out of the year.”

It’s been a year since The River Journal sat in the hot August sun at Ivano’s, kitty-corner from Mico’s restaurant, counting truck traffic. Three hundred and sixty-five days and counting… and what progress has the city made on addressing traffic issues? Not much. In fact, it could be said, not any progress at all. In that year, the Sandpoint City Council has not had traffic flow through downtown on their agenda even once. “We haven’t begun to manage (our traffic issue),” Mico said. “We haven’t even tried.”

Afternoon, about 2:30, and traffic in Sandpoint is backed up again. On the 300 block of First Avenue, the block that stretches from Coldwater Creek to the Panida Theater, a police car blocks off the left lane of traffic, lights flashing. An officer stands on the sidewalk, while curious shoppers look on. It’s not evident why he’s there and blocking traffic – possibly it’s the aftermath to some kind of fender bender. The right lane is also blocked. Federal Express, UPS, and a plain white delivery truck are all parked in the middle of a state highway while they go about their business. The loading zone, a stretch of red curb in front of the Panida Theater, sits empty. Three lanes of traffic are forced to funnel into one, which backs traffic up all the way south to the courthouse.

Delivery trucks accounted for a large percentage of the trucks we counted going through downtown last year, yet how they impede traffic has not been addressed. It’s illegal to double-park, but Sandpoint Police Chief Mark Lockwood said that’s a law that’s not enforced. “We don’t enforce that,” he said. “We can’t. There’s nowhere for these people to deliver.” Lockwood explained that in the past, when it has come before city council to provide loading zones to address this issue, the decision has been made in favor of additional parking spaces. “There’s always this perceived thought that there’s no parking,” Lockwood said. “Downtown businesses don’t want to give up parking spaces to establish loading zones.” Lockwood said it was likely that delivery services would “refuse to deliver downtown” if they were forced to adhere to traffic laws.

That’s an opinion not shared by some downtown business owners. Kathleen Hyde, who owns Bearweare Graphics, located in that traffic-heavy 300 block of First, says the city has never asked business owners to brainstorm solutions to the congestion created by delivery trucks. “I’ve never had anyone from the city approach me about coming up with a solution to this,” she said. It only took a minute before she and a store employee came up with an idea. “Most of First Avenue on the east side has delivery entrances along Sand Creek,” Crystal said. “But delivery drivers don’t always use them. I don’t know why, but maybe if someone talked to the drivers, we could find out. And maybe there’s something we could do to encourage them to use those entrances.”

Another traffic stopper occurs during peak traffic periods with people attempting to drop off mail in the drop box at the post office. “There’s times when trying to drive into the post office is taking your life into your hands,” laughed Terry Hahn, supervisor for city carriers. In just a short conversation, Hahn was able to brainstorm several ways in which the city could address this problem by providing alternate locations throughout downtown for drive-up drop boxes, allowing those just dropping off their mail to avoid the post office itself, reducing congestion.

Molly O’Reilly, who observed Portland, Oregon’s successful revitalization project, points out, “There are several types of traffic downtown. Each kind has a different ‘solution’ because it has a different cause.” In the area of rush hour traffic, she says, “Having employees carpool to town (carpools might park free at the city lot, or at a reduced rate) or be forbidden to park on the street would help to address this problem. Today people feel entitled to drive and park at the curb next to their entrance. This isn't healthy (no exercise).” Employee parking was targeted in Sandpoint’s own revitalization study as an area where much work needs to be done.

The city has recently signed a contract with Hudson Associates, the well-respected team which developed the downtown’s revitalization project, to address parking issues downtown. “Parking has been consistently identified as a priority issue for downtown,” explained Nancy Hadley, President of the Downtown Sandpoint Business Association. “And some traffic issues will certainly be addressed in the parking study, because issues don’t stand alone. The issue with delivery drivers has to do, in part, with the issue of parking.”

Hadley points out that an impediment to addressing issues is the number of players in the game. “We need to partner with city officials, with law enforcement, with the transportation department,” she explained. “It doesn’t do any good to come up with an idea if the city won’t pass an ordinance to support it, or if police can’t enforce it.” In addition, she points to the control the Idaho Transportation Department has over traffic downtown, given that the downtown core is encircled by a state highway. “We can’t address internal circulation without knowing what their plans are and how that will impact traffic,” she said. Improvements to the Dover Highway, she averred, will impact traffic downtown. And ideas like stop signs or stop lights on a highway, or returning First, Cedar and Pine to two-way streets, are under the purview of ITD.

Local businesses ask, “Why?”

“Cities throughout the country place limits on the highways that bisect them,” said Mico. “Ours could, too.”

O’Reilly points out that a vibrant, healthy city doesn’t look to eliminate traffic—rather, it seeks to manage it. “If the highway north and south were a toll road, traffic would stop,” she points out. Instead, the city must figure out how to manage its traffic without turning downtown into an expansion of Fifth Avenue.

These issues are  more imperative as the entire area continues to grow. The approval of a 532-unit development in Dover will have an effect on traffic downtown. Continued growth will expand areas north and west of the current city limits, adding another dimension to traffic management.

No solutions, however, will be reached until someone begins the process. “How the downtown functions is a responsibility of the city,” Mico said. “We (as businesses) have invested in this city, pay taxes to this city for its operation, and we want to stay here. We have a right to expect the city to hear our concerns, and to take action to improve the situation. There is no, single “answer” to every problem, but there are actions that could be taken to make the situation better. We’re asking them to start the process. It has to begin somewhere.”

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

DSBA, downtown, bypass, lSandpoint, traffic, Peter Mico, Spuds, Idaho Transportation Department, Kathleen Hyde, Bearweare Graphics, post office, Terry Hahn, Hudson Associates, parking, Nancy Hadley, Mark Lockwood, Ivano's

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