By Zach Hagadone
As promised, the Sandpoint City Council hosted an informational workshop at its regular March 15 meeting focused on the Multimodal Transportation Master Plan, with a particular emphasis on concepts related to U.S. Highway 2 and the “East-West Connection,” often referred to as “the Couplet.”
With a stacked agenda, the workshop drew dozens of written comments from the public and included a joint presentation from Sandpoint Infrastructure and Development Services Director Amanda Wilson and Preston Stinger, a transportation planner with Fehr and Peers, with which the city has contracted.
Wilson’s and Stinger’s presentation covered 59 slides, ranging from an overview of the goals and objectives of the Transportation Master Plan — which the council approved in 2021 — to a history of planning related to U.S. 2 to vehicle data and simulations and a prolonged discussion of the details of the long-term East-West Connection concept.
Running in excess of five hours, city officials were still addressing written public comment as the Reader was going to press nearing 11 p.m.
The meeting opened with pointed testimony during the forum portion, kicked off by former Sandpoint City Planner Jeremy Grimm, now of Whiskey Rock Planning and Consulting, who criticized City Hall for limiting public participation to written questions, rather than an interactive workshop format.
“This is Sandpoint. Look yourselves in the mirror. You’ve got your people here who want to speak and let you know how they feel about something you’re potentially adopting that’s going to transform the community,” he said, later adding, “We are mute.”
“Is this what you consider government?” he said with obvious emotion, going on to suggest that the way the city conducts its public business changed in 2015 after the adoption of a city administrator form of government, “and that needs to change.”
Resident Molly McCahon also testified about “what looks like public exclusion,” adding that public outreach on the concept “feels disingenuous to me.”
“If I could trust the master plan process it would be one thing,” she said, describing being “blindsided” by decisions that “go totally against” the wishes of residents.
“Keeping up with the city feels like a job and I have been resenting that deeply,” she said, calling on officials to go door to door, host “better workshops” and conduct more robust surveys.
The U.S. 2 concept has ruffled more than a few feathers since it made its way back into the public spotlight following the Feb. 1 council meeting, when councilors voted to approve the purchase of the property currently home to the popular Dub’s Drive-In at the intersection of U.S. 2 and Boyer Avenue.
That acquisition, for $380,000, would open the way for creating an access point off U.S. 2 to South Boyer Avenue in order to provide a north-south connection across the highway. However, that route would run directly through Dub’s, which current owners Marty and Jeralyn Mire are leasing back from the city and subleasing to new owners, who will operate the business at its current location until such time as the city needs to use the property.
Including the left-turn access off U.S. 2 to South Boyer in the concept would require an amendment to the already-approved Transportation Master Plan, which drew attention — and much public opposition — to the concept as a whole. While councilors voted to approve the Dub’s acquisition, they held off on voting for the master plan amendment, preferring to host the workshop, which took place March 15. A decision on the amendment, which will include more opportunity for public testimony, is expected at the regular Wednesday, May 3 meeting of the City Council.
At the workshop, Wilson emphasized that “a pretty broad spectrum of individuals” participated in the process of creating the East-West Connection concept over the course of several years, including a variety of state and local agencies, community members and industry representatives.
According to the design, Pine Street would remain two-way from U.S. 2 to Fifth Avenue, with a signal placed at Pine and Fifth. Northbound traffic would travel on Fifth, which would be converted to one-way. Southbound traffic accessing U.S. 2 would need to exit the intersection at Fifth and Cedar and take a new two-lane, one-way route — one half of the “Couplet” — traveling along the Sandpoint-Dover pathway to the envisioned intersection east of Boyer and Pine, where it would then join U.S. 2.
Among the key reasons cited in the presentation for contemplating those changes is to reduce the amount of traffic cutting through neighborhoods to avoid congestion on the arterials while reducing the number of lanes to be crossed by pedestrians and cyclists by splitting the directional flow of traffic into two separate routes.
According to data presented by Stinger, Sandpoint experienced average daily traffic of 20,200 vehicles in 2010, after which it fell dramatically with the opening of the U.S. 95 Sand Creek Byway. Today, the ADT is pegged at 13,500, though anticipating 2.3% per year growth in traffic, Sandpoint is on track to return to those “pre-bypass” figures of 20,000-plus ADT by 2040.
Opposition to the concept has come from a number of residents and former city officials, who liken it to “the Curve,” which was a similar project brought by the Idaho Transportation Department in 2011, but which the city rejected in 2013 based on impacts to surrounding businesses as well as safety concerns.
“The Couplet concept was favored by the community in 2012,” Wilson said, adding that the notion of splitting north- and southbound traffic into separate one-way routes was intended to avoid the type of large-scale widening on U.S. 2 north of Cedar Street and Fifth Avenue.
In 2013, when the city rejected the Curve, it was based on concerns about business impacts, the potential number of traffic lanes, and pedestrian and cyclist safety.
“All of those were unanimous concerns by City Council,” she said, “So the project took a pause for the next year, year-and-a-half.”
That was until 2015, when the city signed a formal agreement with ITD, agreeing that a future expansion of U.S. 2 would occur on a swath of former-railroad property purchased by the city when the transportation system fell below an unacceptable level of service. The only design on file for that potential future expansion remains the Curve, Wilson said. Meanwhile, the city regained control of its downtown streets from ITD and the department constructed the current Fifth Avenue alignment.
According to the presentation, the purpose of restarting the conservation surrounding the concept is “to inform the beginning of a redesign for how U.S. 2 and city streets connect. …
“The city’s request for advancing this redesign is to provide the community and businesses certainty to the future of the U.S. 2 corridor and related impacts.”
“It’s relaunching that process that we did in 2011 and 2013 that we never really came to a great place with,” Wilson said.
“We’re picking this project back up because we have unresolved issues with where our streets interface with the highway,” Wilson later added in answer to numerous questions about why the city was again considering the highway revision.
“We’re not trying to pick it up to advance construction, we want to solidify solutions for our citizens and the only way to do that is by working with ITD,” she said.
While we have you ...
... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.
You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal