SANDPOINT - The long-awaited and hotly-debated Sand Creek Byway opened ahead of schedule and without a hitch on Friday morning to hoots, hollers and honks.
Some longtime project supporters shed tears of joy while critics muttered dejectedly as traffic began to roll over the $106 million U.S. Highway 95 realignment project that has been talked about for the last 60 years.
Traffic signals were sequenced and crews from lead contractor Parsons RCI picked up barrels and uncovered permanent signage, clearing the way for a pilot car to guide northbound traffic over the mainline span over Sand Creek. Southbound traffic soon followed.
In either direction, the vistas from the top of bridge were sweeping, with sun-dappled Lake Pend Oreille on one side and placid Sand Creek on the other. The views also captured a snapshot of a city that for decades has largely had its back to the creek, but is slowly turning to face and embrace the creek.
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Although there were murmurs of collisions on the project shortly after it opened, Sandpoint Police Chief Mark Lockwood and Ponderay Police Chief Mike Hutter said the opening was uneventful as far as crashes went.
Hutter said an elderly woman from Athol was stopped for driving 68 mph in a 45 mph zone 15 minutes after the new alignment opened. She was given a warning and spared a $90 ticket.
"There has been a lot of elbow grease, blood, sweat and tears," said Parsons engineer Shane Webley.
The construction timeline of nearly four years was a bit longer than typical projects undertaken by Parsons.
"That's a long time to be married to a contractor. That's a long time to be married to an owner," Webley said with the latter reference meaning the Idaho Transportation Department.
But Webley said the experience was rewarding for the 180 Parsons workers who became part of the community during construction. Webley was also grateful for the countless other contractors who worked on the job.
"I knew there was a skilled workforce here that could build this job expertly," he said.
The bypass was forecasted in 1999 to shunt 15 percent of through-town traffic away from downtown. Barbara Babic, an ITD spokeswoman, said further traffic analysis is pending.
"The process isn't over. Now we gather data," she said.