Traffic update: Plethora of projects will hit the road

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The intersection of Highway 53 and Pleasant View Road between Post Falls and Hauser near the state line has been the site of several serious accidents. An overpass over the railroad tracks and Highway 53 is planned to be constructed in 2024, but if a grant is approved this fall it would be constructed in 2020. (Photo courtesy of Kootenai Metropolitan Planning Organization)

Those crossover roads being constructed in the Interstate 90 median near the Huetter rest stops are symbolic of crossing over to more highway projects next year and a vivid sign we're not at the end of the road with construction.

Transportation projects totaling $288 million are planned in Kootenai County from 2019 to 2025 under a program recently approved by the Kootenai Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Two of the biggest projects next year will be repairs of bridges along I-90 from the state line to Atlas Road on the west side of Coeur d'Alene, and access improvements on U.S. 95 from I-90 to Highway 53.

"The crossovers on I-90 are being constructed (to divert traffic) during bridge work that will take place next year," said Reed Hollinshead of the Idaho Transportation Department.

Bridges that will receive maintenance work include structures over the Spokane River at the state line, Pleasant View, Spokane Street and Huetter and Atlas roads.

Glenn Miles, executive director of KMPO, which includes representatives from ITD, highway districts, Kootenai County, cities and the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, said the crossovers will be permanent. That way, traffic can be diverted during emergencies and roadwork.

Miles said the Port of Entry at Huetter on eastbound I-90 is slated to be moved to just east of the McGuire Road overpass on ITD right of way, with construction planned for 2020.

"The current Port of Entry is just in a bad location due to merging traffic and trucks trying to get into the right-hand lane," he said, adding that the hill on the east side of Post Falls also causes obstacles. "There's just a lot going on in that busy area, and the Port of Entry needs to be taken out of that environment."

The second major project to be constructed next year, the U.S. 95 access project through Coeur d'Alene and Hayden, will include punching through Wilbur between 95 and Government Way in addition to signalization and turn improvements.

Also along U.S. 95 north of Coeur d'Alene, construction may start next year on the Highway 53 realignment and interchange.

Improvements for that project also include replacing the existing Highway 53 bridge over the Union Pacific Railroad and extending pedestrian facilities in that area.

Rathdrum Prairie frontier

The Highway 41 widening project from Post Falls to Rathdrum, which is actually two separate projects, will be constructed in 2020 and 2021.

Megan Sausser, ITD spokesman, said construction of the projects was originally slated to be staggered, but they'll now be built over the same two-year period.

Traffic signals and turn-lane improvements will be installed along the stretch at Lancaster Road, a high-accident spot, in 2020.

Union Pacific Railroad crossings will be eliminated at Highway 41, Meyer Road and Prairie Avenue to improve mobility and safety on the Rathdrum Prairie. UP's mainline through the area to Canada will remain intact.

Two other planned safety projects on Pleasant View north of Post Falls where there have been several accidents include a roundabout at Prairie in 2020 and an overpass over Highway 53 and the adjacent railroad in 2024.

Miles said that if a grant is approved this fall, construction on the 53 project as well as another railroad overpass safety project at Diagonal and Ramsey roads would be constructed in 2020. The intersections are part of the Bridging the Valley project aimed at improving safety at railroad intersections from Spokane Valley to Athol.

Why the silence?

Miles said no public testimony was provided at the recent public hearing on the transportation plan, which is updated every year and includes funded projects to be constructed in the next seven years.

He believes testimony on transportation projects is a lot like retirement: Many people don't get too excited about the future until it closes in on their day-to-day lives.

To the contrary, Miles said valuable public input was received during recent open houses for the Highway 41 widening projects.

"That's a project coming up that will impact people throughout the region," he said.

Improving Huetter Road, another project that will improve north-south circulation on the Rathdrum Prairie and dates back a decade, hasn't been assigned a construction year, Miles said. However, planning efforts continue.

"Hayden has done a stellar job of requiring setbacks of right of way as annexation occurs," Miles said. "(The construction date) will have to start coming up in the not-so-distant future as another facility to get north will be needed."

Another Hayden project, the Ramsey Road extension from Wyoming to Lancaster, is planned for 2022. The project had been put on hold until the size of future runways at the airport was settled.

The bigger picture

Miles said transportation funding for local projects "has loosened up a little" due to the state's gas tax increase.

"With rising prices and a flat revenue stream, we were losing ground," he said. "The gas tax has at least helped deal with the day-to-day operations."

Miles said that while progress is being made with maintenance and safety improvements, the planned system improvements that increase capacity in response to Kootenai County's explosive population growth "are not holding their own."

"A lot of the funds are going into maintenance and preservation of the existing system, but not adding new capacity," he said.

Eric Wright, who has lived in Coeur d'Alene for the past 30 years, said he's noticed the congestion caused by growth has come on strong especially in the past two years.

"I never thought I'd live to say it can take a half an hour to 45 minutes to get from Point A to B in the Coeur d'Alene area, but it's here," Wright said while filling up his truck with gas on Friday. "I hope something can be done before it gets to be like Seattle."

Miles said concerns like Wright's are common — and valid.

"We're operating on capacity that was put in 40 to 50 years ago," he said. "A lot of capacity was built into I-90 and U.S. 95 when they were constructed, but that was a long time ago. This area was really discovered in the early 2000s, the recession hit, and now it's been re-discovered. All that time there has been no additional capacity on the roads.

"It's time to start looking at new investments to get us into the future."

Miles said major construction projects, including on I-90 in Coeur d'Alene over the past two years and should wrap in October, have led to the congestion headaches, but a lack of capacity is also a factor.

He said that aside from the upcoming Highway 41 project and the widening of Prairie Avenue, there hasn't been much done to increase capacity.

“That’s because it’s expensive,” he said. “We’ve been relying on what we built 40 to 50 years ago.”

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