By Zach Hagadone
Members of the Sandpoint City Council voted unanimously Feb. 1 to table a proposed amendment to the Multimodal Transportation Plan envisioning a realignment of U.S. Highway 2 to provide a direct connection from a new intersection east of where Pine Street and Boyer Avenue currently meet, then north along the former railroad right of way, and joining U.S. 95 at Fifth Avenue and Cedar Street.
Councilor Jason Welker made the motion to table, which Councilor Deb Ruehle seconded, going on to support moving the proposed amendment to a public workshop, with a date expected to be determined at the Feb. 15 regular meeting of the City Council.
“The idea that we are presenting to the ITD is almost like their dream come true — a four- to five-lane highway going through town,” he said, referring to a concept rendering showing the widening of U.S. 2 to a new signalized intersection that would replace the current crossing at Boyer — and cut off access between North and South Boyer avenues.
In the tabled amendment to the master plan, the city envisioned the purchase of the property currently occupied by Dub’s Drive-In, which would be demolished to make way for a realigned access point off U.S. 2 and onto South Boyer Avenue, providing at least some north-south access across the highway.
The council unanimously approved the purchase of the Dub’s property for $380,000 at the Feb. 1 meeting, which it will lease back to current owners Marty and Jeralyn Mire. The Mires, who have operated the beloved diner for more than 30 years, are planning to retire, but will sublease the property to Ryan and Bethany Welsh, who plan to take over Dub’s.
Under the terms of the agreement, the initial lease term will be for two years, after which it may be terminated at any time by either party or renewed for additional six-month terms. The rent would be $500 per month. The business will stay at its current location until such time as the city needs to use the property, and the Welsh’s have stated that they intend to relocate, rather than shutter, Dub’s in the future.
“It was our decision, we approached the city,” said Marty Mire. “The city’s not coming and taking it.”
According to the proposed overall concept, 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 seeking to access U.S. 2 from U.S. 95 would need to exit the intersection at Fifth and Cedar and take a new two-lane, one-way route traveling along the Sandpoint-Dover pathway to the envisioned intersection east of Boyer and Pine, where it would then join four-lane U.S. 2.
If that sounds familiar to some residents, it’s because a similar concept referred to as “the Curve” was in the works with the Idaho Transportation Department and city of Sandpoint between 2011 and 2013, but which the city ultimately opposed for fear that it would mean the demolition of several local businesses.
The community also balked at the project due to its size, which included the potential for up to five lanes on U.S. 2.
“Once the residents of Sandpoint saw this they pulled back because of the five-lane configuration and were put off by that,” Ruehle said, highlighting fears that the widening and alignment would prove unsafe for pedestrians. “That was part of the context of rejection.”
The impetus at the time was to move U.S. 2 traffic off downtown streets and therefore enable ITD to relinquish control of Pine Street, First Avenue and Cedar Street to the city. As one project planner with the design firm Dale Evans and Associates, which worked on the Curve concepts, said in a 2011 report from the Reader: “The whole purpose of this project is to make a new highway connection at the west end of town so highway traffic and trucks don’t need to travel through downtown.”
With Sandpoint opposed to the Curve on the grounds of its business impact and pedestrian safety issues, ITD took the project off its forecast for funding in 2013. Officials later crafted an alternative in 2015 that enabled the transfer of Fifth Avenue to Sandpoint, which in turn resulted in the city embarking on its two-way traffic reversion, which was completed in 2017.
That would seem to have been the end of the Curve. However, Infrastructure and Development Services Director Amanda Wilson said the Curve had progressed beyond the conceptual stage to being a designed project, and remains the only designed project ITD has for that realignment of U.S. 2. What’s more, under a 2015 cooperative agreement between the agency and Sandpoint, if and when the levels of service fall to a certain level on that roadway, Wilson said ITD will get to work fixing it.
“The Curve was paused,” she said, referring to the “misunderstanding that the Curve went away.”
While getting highway traffic off of downtown streets is no longer an issue, the push for the newly reimagined “east-west connection,” a.k.a. “the Couplet,” as the proposed concept is referred to in planning documents, is to correct some of the failings of the Curve design and get ahead of whatever ITD might decide to do should service levels on U.S. 2 decline to an unacceptable level.
However, despite the proposed fixes in the Couplet concept, many of the same concerns surrounding the Curve were aired at the Feb. 1 meeting.
“I’m struggling with the fact that our public, our residents here get very attached to pictures and watercolor drawings and can become very offended or riled by the fact that we show much more than we’re actually going to need,” Ruehle said, adding that transit research has show that building more lanes often results in creating more traffic, not alleviating it.
“That is a real thing. Induced and latent demand is a real thing where, you build it they will come. There’s no doubt that is for real and that will happen,” said Preston Stinger, a transportation planner with Fehr and Peers, with which the city has contracted.
“That said, without changes in the future with the community as far as buying into alternative modes [of transportation] and demand management strategies — that in some cases requires a different mode of living — that’ll be tough to sway without a big program.”
Welker questioned the immediate need for proceeding with the Couplet as currently conceived in the multimodal master plan, much less amending it, and noted that addressing levels of service and traffic volume on that particular stretch of U.S. 2 is “very low priority” in the corridor-wide analysis, and, “There’s actually no high-priority improvements through the Highway 2 corridor.”
ITD’s own analysis suggests U.S. 2 wouldn’t need to be widened until 2055, Welker added.
“We need to make sure that we are accommodating what future demand is telling us it’s going to be,” Stinger said.
Wilson agreed: “The risk of not planning for the future is we would make holistically different decisions at key intersections. … Planning for the future is making us look at what’s the biggest area we’re going to impact, potentially?”
Public testimony favored the purchase of the Dub’s property, intended to give Sandpoint leverage in potential future negotiations with ITD — a point made by the Mires.
“We would much prefer the city to be in control of this property because what we learned going through the Curve was that the state … I would say maybe they don’t have the best interests of Sandpoint at heart,” Jeralyn said.
“[I] wanna say bullies you,” Marty interjected.
That said, resident Brad Smith, who also serves as North Idaho director for the Idaho Conservation League, cautioned that the increased number of lanes potentially envisioned by the Couplet concept would have unintended consequences.
“I grew up in Coeur d’Alene and watched how a highway divided the town,” he said, referring to the expansion of U.S. 95 and how the increase in the number of lanes became a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that actually increased traffic congestion.
“I think that’s the impact we’ll see in our community,” he said.
Resident Steve Holt, who served on local transportation planning efforts going back to the 1990s, suggested that road widening projects tend to “nibble away at our communities, and I think that’s what this one will do.”
What’s more, he added, “It seems somewhat inappropriate to be amending a community plan that’s over 100 pages long … without getting some public input on it.”
Andrea Marcoccio, who co-owns Matchwood Brewing and has worked on local economic development issues, said a group of five businesses in the Granary District area have come together to look at the impacts they could potentially face should southbound traffic be routed past their establishments.
“I’m not speaking in favor or against something tonight, just opening a conversation,” she said, adding that merchants want to know more about timing, costs and opportunities to surrounding businesses, safety, sound pollution, neighborhood connectivity and other facets of the concept.
“We’re here to listen and participate,” she said.
To view the Feb. 1 City Council meeting, go to the city of Sandpoint’s YouTube channel.
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