City must engage in real public involvement on ‘Couplet’ concept

By Molly O’Reilly
Reader Contributor

The Multimodal Transportation Master Plan that the city of Sandpoint proclaims favors all methods of getting around equally and was developed with “extensive public involvement” is flawed. You will read here of two deficits that mean it should be regarded merely as advisory.

First, it proposes a five-lane stretch of Highway 2 where none exists today. Half of pedestrian deaths in this country are on five-lane roadways or wider. Nowhere near half of all walking/rolling trips are on highways. Sandpoint has already had two people on foot die on its five-line highway. So, this is not a plan that favors all methods of getting around equally. It prioritizes fast through traffic in Sandpoint. 

Second, the “extensive public involvement.” The online survey that formed an important basis of “involvement” did not mention “the Couplet” or a five-lane highway. It’s likely that almost nobody paid attention to a project 20 years in the future. The concept seemed fuzzy and slipped past without notice.

Pardon the history, but it’s relevant: In 2004, the Sandpoint City Council formed the Pedestrian Advisory Committee. In 2010, then-Mayor Gretchen Heller combined it with the Bicycle Committee, and the Sandpoint Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee was formed and enshrined in City Code, Chapter 6. That chapter describes the committee and its duties. You can find it online at under “City Code” at the top of the homepage.

In November 2018, city staff told the committee it would not meet again, and that council would remove it from the code in January. Planning was newly underway for the transportation master plan, and any interested committee member could participate in the ad hoc committee.

I signed up and received emails for three meetings, which I attended. Interestingly, the staff emails to committee members blind copied us all, so we didn’t know who was included except by seeing others in meetings. Council did not approve committee members. There was no public announcement of meetings so they could satisfy the Idaho Open Meeting laws and Sandpoint’s committee handbook procedures. No documents were sent in advance.

Staff took notes — there were no minutes (which, under city procedure, we would have approved at the next meeting and then would be sent to council). We never saw the notes, did not elect a chair and addressed only the issues staff presented. After several meetings, I “fell off” the list, meaning I was unable to learn when meetings were to be held. So, I don’t know what happened after that.

A Sandpoint citizen advisory committee with 14 years of experience advising the city about walking, ADA and cycling was abruptly shut down as multimodal transportation planning began. True citizen involvement begins early in developing a plan. It does not mean answering some general questions in an online survey or reviewing a final draft and commenting after it’s too late to shape the plan.

Today, the City Council should initiate a very vigorous public process before making any controversial decision based on the plan. The Couplet is likely the most significant decision this council will make.

Attend the Sandpoint City Council workshop on Wednesday, March 15, 5:30 p.m. in Council Chambers. 

You may hear staff explain how expensive it is to change the transportation plan. Will they explain: The negative effects of encouraging highway traffic through Sandpoint?  Additional traffic and crime policing costs? Business and neighborhood losses and disruptions? Health impacts of pollution and loss of walking/cycling opportunities? Tying the project to needing a downtown parking structure? 

We need a vigorous public discussion of all impacts of a serious highway through the heart of Sandpoint. This decision will shape Sandpoint for at least a century. Please include us all.

Molly O’Reilly is a member of the Project 7B Steering Committee, board member of the Idaho Walk Bike Alliance, past board member of America Walks and a former member of the city of Sandpoint Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee.

Sandpoint City Council Hwy. 2 workshop •Wednesday, March 15, 5:30 p.m. Sandpoint City Hall Council Chambers, 1123 Lake St., 208-263-3158, Find a PDF of the Multimodal Transportation Master Plan at

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