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Sandpoint's Got an Axle to Grind

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Sandpoint's Got an Axle to Grind

Counting traffic in downtown Sandpoint

I suspect Jim Lippi doesn’t much like it when people oppose the bypass through the Sand Creek peninsula. He’s not a proponent of that bypass, and he’s not an opponent of it either. But he laughs somewhat ruefully and says, “I support some kind of bypass and I’d like to see one built before I have to have a bypass!”

As one of the partners in the Vintage Court, on the corner of First and Pine in downtown Sandpoint, his business bears the brunt of through-town traffic. But if you’ve heard anything about Jim Lippi, then you’ve probably heard he’s one of the nicest men in town. That means he continues to let The River Journal use his restaurant, Ivano’s, as a satellite office despite a series of four stories we printed about the NICAN (North Idaho Community Action Network) presentation on why that bypass should be prevented from going through Sand Creek. In fact, he not only still welcomes us, he feeds us well and treats us like family – that trademark service the Lippis and the Ballards, Jim’s partners in the business, have become known for.

Sitting in Ivano’s one day, as traffic roared around their beautiful patio, Jim shook his head and said, “You know, I’d pay someone to count the trucks that go by here. There must be 400 a day.”

I couldn’t get his statement out of my mind. “There’s a story there,” I thought, and I went to Jim. “I’ll do it,” I told him. “I’ll sit out there and count trucks.” And not just count trucks, because understanding the problem is only half the issue – understanding what can be done about it is the other half. So why not invite anyone and everyone to brainstorm ways to “mitigate” the impact of truck traffic on our town? I thought this would be a good 9 to 5 project, but Jim insisted I get there earlier... and stay later. So one Friday I packed my backpack and headed into town for a 12-hour stint of counting trucks.

I woke up at 5 am and watched as a bright, sunny morning flowed over Antelope Mountain and into the Clark Fork River Valley. “Thank goodness it’s not raining,” I said, as I packed my bag with trail mix, books, water bottle, notepads, cell phone and paperwork. The plan was to sit on Ivano’s patio, counting trucks from 8 am to 8 pm.

We picked a Friday to do this project because the Friday after we print is the only day where I can spend 12 hours on a project, and not leave too much other work undone. We were told that Friday might be a slow day for trucks, but decided that if we erred, at least our numbers would be conservative.

I created a spreadsheet for tracking the trucks. There were columns for northbound and southbound, and whether or not a truck had a double trailer; columns for type of truck (delivery, freight, concrete, log, etc.); a column for RVs; a column for noise; and a column for speed. There was also a category for animals, though that single case of Mad Cow disease in Canada has eliminated the huge cattle trucks we all hate to have going through town. It was decided not to count small utility trucks (Avista, Verizon, etc...); to only count FedEx and UPS if they were driving actual trucks; not to include pick-up trucks pulling trailers, boats or horses; no pick-up campers; and to leave tow trucks off the list.

By 7:45 I was setting up on Ivano’s patio, not far from the water fountain and screened from the road by the incredible garden Pam Lippi is growing there on one of the busiest corners in town. Rich Ballard brought me coffee and offered to set up an umbrella over the table – an offer that I, sun hog that I am, refused. Barney Ballard brought me a just-baked croissant, stuffed with fontina cheese. “I’m in heaven,” I thought, as the croissant melted in my mouth.

At 8 am sharp the count began, and I found myself at the gates of hell. Thank goodness Rich stayed with me that first half hour or this project would have died at birth. “Southbound, freight,” he’d say as I frantically searched for columns on my spreadsheet. “Northbound, gravel, double-trailer.” By 8:12 ten trucks had passed going north; at 8:15 we reached ten trucks going south.

Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Flavel came by with a radar gun, which he quickly taught me how to use. It was on loan from Sheriff Phil Jarvis, as one complaint we’ve all heard throughout town is that the trucks go through too fast. “It scares me to try to cross First Avenue,” is a common remark.

Using a radar gun is not as easy as it looks. Especially not when you’re counting trucks, and the trucks are coming by in a steady stream.

8:24 and another ten trucks going north. 8:29 and another ten going south. Other projects were forgotten as I tried to keep up with the trucks going through town.

By 9 am we’d reached our first hundred trucks – and kudos to Jim Hutchens, who predicted we’d count a hundred trucks an hour. Jim is a CPA with offices on First Avenue – he watches the trucks every day.

Throughout the morning, the number of trucks only increased. By 10 am we were seeing two trucks every minute – and the traffic was pretty evenly spaced between northbound and southbound. Surprisingly, at least a quarter of those trucks were double-trailers. It’s not just 18-wheelers going through town.

An early category lumped concrete, septic and gravel trucks together. It was apparent gravel trucks should have been in a category by themselves, as they were obviously dominant. Many of the gravel trucks were counted as double-trailers, though technically, they’re not. They’re a dump truck pulling a trailer. But double-trailer basically meant really darn big – and the gravel trucks were certainly that.

The gravel trucks, especially those operated by one particular local firm, were the first obvious problem. They drive too fast.

Sitting on the patio I could hear these big trucks slowing down as they came down First Avenue long before I could see them. I would grab the radar gun and stand on the patio wall – and would hit them with radar about the time they were passing in front of Ground Zero, just before the turn to City Beach. At that time, they’d have slowed down to about 24 miles per hour. How fast were they going before that? And why? Two trailers full of gravel means these trucks aren’t stopping on a dime – and you can understand why people would be afraid to cross the street. You can even understand why they might be afraid to walk their children down First Avenue; just one small child getting out of their parent’s control, and darting into the road, would be a nightmare this town would have difficulty recovering from.

These same trucks were also a problem going south. Southbound they were unloaded, and they’d come around the curve at Pine and First around 20+ miles per hour (as did most vehicles). Being empty, their trailers bounced and banged – an enormous amount of the noise problem in downtown Sandpoint could be addressed if these guys would just slow down.

Here’s the first thing to be done. The city of Sandpoint needs to get in touch with local trucking firms and make sure they understand the impact their drivers have on our downtown core. Speed and noise are two things that can be self-controlled.

Gravel trucks weren’t the only drivers going too fast, of course. I clocked a beer delivery truck going 27 in front of Ground Zero and many others who only slowed to 25 well into the downtown area. That radar gun is interesting, by the way. The minute drivers spot it, their feet go on the brake.

There’s an idea. That mechanical speed sign that’s been placed all over town (“your speed is...”) could be stationed on First Avenue – sometimes a reminder is all that’s needed to slow someone down.

A number of ideas were suggested to slow traffic. Speed bumps were one such suggestion, though I suspect there’s a limit to what a city can impose on a state highway going through its jurisdiction. But speed limits are certainly within reason – and dropping the speed limit through Sandpoint to 15 mph is worth considering.

And what about speeding tickets? Although there’s been a more visible police presence in downtown Sandpoint in the week since the count was undertaken, policemen catching speeders during daylight hours on First Avenue is about as common as the IRS letting you know you’ve been paying too much in taxes. Priest River learned this lesson long ago – anyone who drives through that fair city knows they darn well better not exceed the speed limit, because if they do, they’re going to get busted. It’s a reputation Sandpoint would do well to establish.

Several people stopped by to visit that morning, to talk about the issue of trucks going through our downtown and what could be done to alleviate the problem. It doesn’t matter what you think about a bypass through the peninsula – this is the one issue we all agree on. Big trucks don’t belong in the downtown core. I can’t remember who actually came by, though – I was too busy counting trucks. My book went unread in my backpack, and my notepaper went unused. There was no time for anything but counting trucks, with the occasional pause to put on more sunscreen.

Big trucks don’t belong in the downtown core. Why can’t the city pass an ordinance to ban trucks from downtown? It’s been done elsewhere. North and southbound truck traffic can use Hwy. 41 and Hwy. 2 as their conduit, instead of First and Fifth Avenues, and Cedar St. Yes, it would add more driving time for those drivers – but should Sandpoint’s major consideration be the convenience of the trucking industry, or the safety and viability of its city streets? 

If Sandpoint is not quite ready for that, then like communities elsewhere, ban the passage of double-trailer (and bigger) trucks through the downtown. 

These trucks are louder, and do much more damage to the roads, than regular 18-wheelers and require much more room for a turning radius, making them more dangerous to other vehicles and pedestrians. In addition, their weight means they take longer to come to a stop, an undesirable trait in a town that desires to be “pedestrian-friendly.” Federal studies show 75% of fatalities involving these big trucks and cars occur on rural, non-interstate highways. The state of Montana limits these trucks to travel in daylight hours, Monday through Friday only, showing it is possible to place bans on these vehicles.

At the very least, Sandpoint should examine the possibility of banning truck traffic downtown during certain hours. For example, if Sandpoint wants to be “open for business” to local shoppers and tourists in the evenings, banning truck traffic from 5 pm to 8 pm would make the downtown a more comfortable place for pedestrians to browse and shop.

At 11:29 someone counted trucks for me while I went inside to let Jim know we’d hit his prediction of 400 trucks. So he can’t estimate traffic – he’s still a heck of a nice guy and one of the finest chefs in town. Amazingly enough, by ten minutes after noon, we hit the 500 mark.

Another idea is to put a stoplight, or even a four-way stop, at the corner of First Avenue and Lake St – the corner where traffic backs up if anyone wants to make a left turn into the assessor’s office, or go down to the Power House. Making traffic stop is not the way to get the same traffic through an area as quickly as possible – but again, is that our priority, or is it the priority of the Idaho Transportation Department?

At 12:10 the third truck full of pigs passed through town. Pig trucks make their presence known – for a good two minutes after they’ve passed by. “Thank goodness for Mad Cow,” I thought. “I wonder what pigs could get?” I fantasized about a “downtown terrorist” who secretly passed through Canada, infecting animals so they couldn’t be trucked through Sandpoint. It might not be feasible – but we know it works.

Almost 20% of the “trucks” counted were RVs – and this in a town said to be “unfriendly” to RV-ers. That’s a lot of commerce to ignore. Sandpoint could become much more accessible to travelers in RVs (and travelers, period) with better signage showing where things are – in particular, places where these big rigs can park, so they can get out and enjoy our downtown.

Afternoon. By 2:24 we’d reached 730 trucks.

Maybe it’s time to consider moving forward the designation of Pine as a two-way street, along with the section of Fifth Avenue from Pine to Cedar. Although big trucks could not utilize this route, due to the small turning radius at Pine and Fifth, smaller trucks certainly could. In addition, limiting the number of lanes southbound on Pine St. has the effect of slowing traffic. This idea doesn’t offer much help to a business like Ivano’s, which is already experiencing the dual load of both north- and southbound traffic, but does lessen the load on Cedar Street and much of First Avenue.

By 3:56 we’d counted 909 trucks. Traffic was slowing by this point – the gravel trucks had tapered off, as had the RVs. Delivery trucks were still coming in a steady stream and the freight trucks had picked up slightly. Trucks carrying logs and wood products were coming through more frequently.

There were certainly suggestions that the bypass through Sand Creek is the best solution to truck problems - but that bypass, if built on schedule, is years away from taking a single truck out of town. Can Sandpoint afford to wait to address this issue? While there are new businesses hanging their shingles in downtown Sandpoint, more and more long-time businesses are leaving. Our business owners deserve quicker action.

5 pm and the dinner hour began. We were at 950 trucks as people began coming into the restaurant for dinner. At 5:13 we hit the 1,000 mark. 

The noise these trucks make is incredible – and it’s not just the trucks. It seemed that half the noise we heard that day came from diesel pickup trucks. They’re just about as loud as the big trucks and who would have guessed this area has so many of them. Luckily sound is another issue other communities have had to deal with, and techniques for reducing sound levels have been implemented throughout the world – though not in Sandpoint. 

Truck traffic slowed somewhat at that point, and by the 8 pm quitting point we’d counted 1,148 trucks going through downtown Sandpoint. Noise was also tracked – not the trucks, or even those diesel pickups, but loud stereo systems, vehicles with no mufflers, Harley motorcycles. There were 106 marks made for noise. Of the total truck count, 283 vehicles were RVs. Close to 150 were gravel trucks, and 173 vehicles – over 10% - were double-trailer trucks. 

Solutions are one thing, but paying for them is another. So another idea is to increase the price of truck permits. Since the NAFTA regulations were passed in 1993, truck traffic has increased. According to the Idaho Transportation Department, 33,835 commercial trucks passed through the Eastport, Idaho border crossing that year. In 2002, that number had jumped to 47,368. 

Our county needs to lobby to receive more of the dollars the state receives from truck permits. Idaho is “trucker-friendly,” said to offer lower permit fees while allowing the passage of bigger, heavier trucks with fewer restrictions. For example, the federal weight limit for trucks is 80,000 pounds – Idaho allows up to 129,000 pounds, despite the increased costs to taxpayers for road damage caused by the heavier weights. Studies show the damage done to roads by just one 80,000-pound tractor-trailer is equivalent to the damage done by 800-1,000 passenger vehicles and that damage increases exponentially with increased weight. A 95,000-pound truck does two to three times the damage as an 80,000-pound truck. Bonner County should receive funding commensurate to the damage done by these vehicles we encourage to travel through here.

The city of Sandpoint should also investigate whether it can institute a separate permit fee on trucks passing through the city. Not only does this give trucks an incentive to use another route, the extra dollars would help fund some of those other solutions that were suggested. Skip Pucci pointed out that if our Friday count was representative of an average “day,” then even a conservative estimate suggests over 350,000 trucks a year pass through our downtown. A $10 permit fee for each of those trips would generate some sizable funding for improvements.

These suggestions are nothing more than brainstorming – a closer look at any, or all, may prove them to be unfeasible. But you have to start somewhere – and many in downtown Sandpoint believe we can wait no longer to begin dealing with our truck issues.

Thank you to all the people who stopped by to visit and help count trucks, plus those who sent emails or phone calls with suggestions regarding traffic and other help. And a big “thank you” to Ivano’s Ristorante for agreeing to be a staging ground for the project, and for offering good food, conversation, and help counting trucks throughout the day.

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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

Sandpoint, Priest River, traffic, Jim Lippi, Ivanos, Skip Pucci, Sand Creek bypass, Vintage Court, NICAN, Pam Lippi, Barney Ballard, Eric Flavel, Sheriff Phil Jarvis, Jim Hutchens

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