By Zach Hagadone
About 100 area residents turned out to the Sandpoint library for a town hall hosted March 20 by the Reader, where they took in presentations, asked questions and offered their comments on a range of topics related to the city’s Multimodal Transportation Master Plan — specifically, the “East-West Connection” concept focused on widening and realigning the stretch of U.S. Highway 2 between Division and Fifth avenues.
The concept envisions additional lanes on U.S. 2; reconfigured U.S. 2 intersections at Ella, Boyer and Fifth avenues; the relocation of a traffic signal to Fifth and Pine Street; the return of two-way traffic to Pine; a new signalized intersection at Superior Street and First Avenue; a new alignment at Bridge Street and First that separates north- and southbound traffic; and, drawing a large amount of attention, a “couplet” connecting southbound traffic from Fifth and Cedar Street to U.S. 2 at the new Boyer intersection via a new two-lane, one-way route alongside the current Sandpoint-Dover Community Trail.
The East-West Connection has been part of the transportation plan since its adoption by the City Council in spring 2021, but reentered the public eye Feb. 1, when the council considered an amendment to the plan that would create a new access point off U.S. 2 to South Boyer Avenue through the current Dub’s Drive-In property, which the city voted to acquire.
Met with mixed reactions of confusion and opposition by the public, the city hosted an informational workshop on the overall plan and concept at its March 15 regular meeting, which ran to more than five hours and only included written testimony from residents.
The town hall put on by the Reader came as a result of community members expressing dissatisfaction with the level of public involvement related to the concept, and was intended in part to provide a forum on the topic and gather responses to an informal survey, which drew 62 respondents.
Invited speakers included Jeremy Grimm and Aaron Qualls, who served as Sandpoint city planners from 2007-2015 and 2015-2020, respectively. Also in attendance were City Council President Kate McAlister and Councilors Deb Ruehle and Jason Welker, as well as Sandpoint Planning and Zoning Commission Vice-Chair Mose Dunkel and Commissioner Amelia Boyd.
Both Grimm and Qualls served the city in various capacities during creation of the 2009 Comprehensive Plan, as well as the so-called “Curve” project, which also envisioned widening U.S. 2 and putting in place a couplet from U.S. 2 to Fifth and Cedar.
Proposed by the Idaho Transportation Department in 2011 and ultimately rejected by the city in 2013 — during which time Qualls was a councilor and Grimm was planning director — the Curve generated similar opposition from the public, leading many to believe the concept had been shelved.
So it was with some surprise that “the Couplet” concept reentered the conversation in February, despite the fact that it had been in the transportation plan all along.
Several attendees at the March 20 town hall questioned the level of public involvement that led up to adoption of the plan, noting that engagement opportunities occurred in the late-winter and summer of 2020, amid the onset and height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is how the city went about engaging the public to devise and build the most important plan that’s going to affect the public, two years ago during COVID,” Grimm said during his presentation. “Even as someone who’s engaged, I was not that engaged in the process, because it was COVID.”
Furthermore, he said, the data doesn’t back up the necessity for reengaging with ITD on a large-scale realignment and widening of U.S. 2.
“I’m a little shocked that we’re back here,” he said, adding later, “We fought this thing for the better part of five years, and the resolution was fine for me and a lot of other people. … Let’s leave the sleeping dogs sleeping.”
Both Grimm and Qualls noted that traffic volume projections in the plan suggest annual average daily trips will rise to about 20,000 by 2040 — roughly the same ADT as experienced before the U.S. 95 Sand Creek Byway opened in 2012. At that point, both said, general planning guidance is to consider adding “an additional lane or two,” but even then, as Grimm said, referring to a page from the city’s transportation plan, Sandpoint’s intersections will not have failed.
Qualls framed the issue as “corridor integrity” versus “livability and small business vibrancy,” and suggested that based on Federal Highway Administration guidance, Sandpoint might even consider reducing lanes — particularly on Fifth Avenue-U.S. 2 north of Cedar Street.
“I guess I wonder why this isn’t a priority right now,” he said.
Comments also revolved around questioning the size, need and urgency of the concept, as well as frustration about public involvement in the process.
Boyd said the conceptual redesign isn’t related to the level of service so much as concerns over cut-through traffic in residential neighborhoods — particularly in south Sandpoint, as motorists seek to avoid traveling on U.S. 2.
“It’s not safe, period,” she said. “We’ve got all that cut-through traffic, that traffic zooming down Lake Street. … There is not a safe way to Travers [Park] from south Sandpoint.”
Boyd added that a solution is needed, but whether it’s the East-West Connection, “I don’t know.”
Resident Steve Holt, who has been involved at the citizen level with local transportation issues since the 1990s, said that the city’s transportation plan is not “gospel” and can be reopened and returned for additional public input.
“At least put us at the table and listen to us,” he said.
Dunkel said that Sandpoint is “not going to get rid of this [truck] traffic going through town — to get it to go through town better is the goal.” What’s more, though he indicated he’s in favor of the East-West Connection so long as pedestrians and cyclists can cross the highway safely, Dunkel said the sense of urgency is no more than a perception.
“There’s no way this could happen in the next 10 years,” he said.
One attendee asked where the current parking area will go west of Fifth Avenue between Oak and Main streets, and also suggested that a greater need exists for addressing rampant growth in the county.
Andrea Marcoccio, who co-owns Matchwood Brewing and formerly served the community as an economic development expert, said, “The process has been difficult [to provide feedback].”
“We’ve been following the playbook and rules to participate,” she said, adding that while she spoke at the Feb. 1 council meeting and “felt heard at the time,” she and other business owners adjacent to the conceptual Couplet route have yet to sit down with city officials to express their thoughts.
“We’re still excited to have that meeting,” he said.
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