Sandpoint Traffic Going Two-Way: An improvement or a mess?

Point: Sandpoint traffic woes
By Herb Wiens

Saturday, on the way back from the boat launch at Laclede, I decided to experience the thrill of navigating Sandpoint’s downtown core. I turned my crew-cab truck, with 22-foot boat in tow, onto eastbound Church Street. Bravely, I charged once more unto the breach of leftist ideological traffic planning. Being the first light-controlled intersection, you would think that Church is the designated route to fully access the downtown experience. That is a fallacious assumption. When the unwary driver arrives at First Avenue, they find that their only option is to turn south and either park in the middle of the street waiting to turn to the beach or continue southbound out of town. To access any businesses to the north, the driver must follow a circuitous route of right turns, left turns and stop signs.

I decided to turn on Bridge Street and, observing that the beach area was packed, dove in behind Gunning’s Alley to make my way northbound. Getting back on First Avenue was like having a bad psychedelic trip flashback. Pedestrians strolled willy nilly in front of traffic without even looking or caring. I swear that I saw a latte-packing pink unicorn prancing diagonally across First on its way into the Panida. A stressed motorist must dodge entitled tourists who think that the middle of the street is part of their “safe space”, jaywalking unicorns and wrong-way bicyclists while negotiating a slalom course.

You might think that this chaos was a giant mistake of planning. You would be wrong. It is a calculated plan by the city. To quote the city’s recently retired engineer, Kody Van Dyk, in an article that he co-authored with Gary Toth of Project for Public Spaces: “Ask whether you should really be planning for traffic 25  years in the future, or figuring out ways to curb that traffic now by becoming a place that encourages alternative modes of transportation.” The article also derided DOTs for highway planning  that moves the highest volume of traffic in the shortest amount of time. Toth is the hit man hired by the LOR Foundation and the Idaho Pedestrian & Bicycle Alliance to mediate between the city and the ITD over “the Curve” project. The negotiation was all charade. The city’s intention was to spike the project all along.

You wonder why there is no northbound onramp at the south end of the Byway. Ask the city and your Chamber of Commerce. The ITD ASKED if the city wanted one during the planning process. But, the city and the Chamber wanted to force travelers to drive through town in an attempt to squeeze more money from drivers unlucky enough to stop for gas.

You wonder why the city traffic patterns are so convoluted instead of having stoplights. The answer is that Sandpoint has no one that is capable of changing a light bulb — really. Instead of sending someone to light bulb-changing school, the city busies itself using eminent domain for roundabouts and dreaming up blind mazes for traffic flow.

You ask why this mess was not resolved in 2013 when the Curve and the street realignment was to be completed. The answer is on a video where City Planner Jeremy Grimm, Council President Shelby Rognstad and Chamber President Kate McAlister are all bragging about shutting down a six-lane monstrosity completely rending the community in two. The truth is that the original Curve concept was to simply extend the Fifth Avenue five lane for three blocks down the ITD owned rail-bed.

So, instead of having simple, black-and-white traffic that is easy to understand and navigate — where everyone, including pedestrians, understand the rules — we have a Rube Goldberg contraption that no one is happy with. To regain normalcy, the entire starry-eyed ideologue city leadership must be replaced with pragmatists that have the ability to say NO when a hair-brained plan comes out of the back room of City Hall.

As an epilogue, all I have to say about diagonal parking is that it should be back in. Back-in parking is safer to get out of and is better for motorcycles. If you don’t have the ability to back into a parking spot that terminates with a curb, perhaps you should really be walking instead of driving.


Counterpoint: One-time skeptic now a supporter
By Mose Dunkel

As a lifelong resident of the Sandpoint area, I have experience with traffic here. I have an early memory of riding around with my mom on Church Street and realizing we were going the wrong way on a newly appointed one-way street. I also remember hearing my parents and their friends wondering what “they” were thinking when this terrible idea was put together.

I’m not sure of the driving force behind that idea to change so many streets to the one-way plan we had for so long. Maybe it had something to do with Highway 95 and Highway 2 cutting through the heart of Sandpoint or that the possibility of the Byway was so much closer. Now we know the Byway was decades away, and highways only became busier each year. Parking, which has always been a hot topic, has not become any less of a problem, and in all these years Sandpoint has made progressive steps toward a tourism-based economy downtown.

The city has tried to deal with these issues with limited powers amid growth and a change of culture downtown. Then there’s the Byway, which took over 60 years to approve, and I’m not sure it’s done everything we hoped it would. Sandpoint still has a major highway going through it in essentially three directions with Highway 2 coming in from the west side heading north and also connecting to the southbound drivers to the Long Bridge. Sandpoint is only one player in the much larger traffic game, and the Idaho Transportation Department calls the shots on what happens with the major highways going through town.

By gaining downtown traffic authority on First and Cedar, it’s possible to see what the downtown looks like without so much through traffic. Sandpoint has only been able to solve part of the traffic dilemma, but in my opinion this is a major step in the right direction. I believe we will grow with this new design enough to make the other issue of Highway 2 stick out like a sore thumb. Sure, it will take a decade or more to actually figure this out, but things like this take time. Let’s just hope it’s not 60 years.

Over the last four years I’ve been a critic of the new traffic plan. I said things like: “Why fix what isn’t broken?” “Waste of money (I know a local athletic field we could put that into).” “Californians SMH.” “Thanks Obama!” “I’m not into this new world order crap in Sandpoint.” They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and I’m not one to roll over for every new idea. But if I see merit it a plan, I’ll only fight it for so long. This is one of those moments for me.

What I find very appealing is going north from Pine to Fifth. I never expected that part of the plan to be so smooth! I’ve taken Boyer to head north and waited in that four-way stop at Cedar trying to get back to Fifth so much that the new route absolutely blows me away. It has cut my travel time down by half at least. Something else I love is that we got rid of three stoplights. Stoplights are the most ridiculous part of traffic control, so losing three lights is a major positive to me. The addition of the light at Church and Fifth puzzles me because I don’t see it as necessary. Likewise, the one block of mystery between Fifth and Fourth on Pine upset me — at least until I really looked into it. To get from the Long Bridge to Dover, you should just take Church! If you decide to take Pine then you receive a small sneaky penalty in that decision. You get to drive three blocks to actually get one block closer to your destination.

It’s not perfect. We have diagonal parking, stop signs that maybe shouldn’t be there, the need to look both ways now (I’ll admit I almost caused an accident  last night) and narrow intersections. But the biggest issue I’ve encountered is my own bias against the change. I’ve chosen to find the positives with this tabloid-level drama and do my best to move on from it.

Take a trip through town when it’s not busy and really take it in from both directions. It’s very interesting to see buildings from the opposite side.

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