Sandpoint City Council schedules workshop on transit plan

Meeting, including the Hwy. 2 ‘Couplet’ concept, will be informational session between city staff and councilors

A map of the so-called “Couplet” outlining potential changes to the downtown streets. Courtesy city of Sandpoint.

Reader Staff

The high-profile U.S. Highway 2 redevelopment concept — often referred to as “the Couplet” — will go before the City Council as an informational workshop Wednesday, March 15, following unanimous approval of the scheduling by councilors at their Feb. 15 meeting.

However, while the workshop will take place at the regular meeting time of 5:30 p.m. in City Council chambers (1123 Lake St.) and the public is free to attend, residents will not have an opportunity to testify or participate.

“[T]he dialogue will be between staff presenting to council,” said City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton.

That was in response to Councilor Jason Welker, who said he was “confused” at the description of the workshop as “an informational session,” having thought that when the council voted to direct staff to propose such a gathering it would be to collect public input.

“When I think of a workshop I think of some public involvement,” he said.

Councilor Deb Ruehle also said that she was “confused.”

“I thought when we made the decision to table that we were going to come back with a workshop that included public input as to the direction of what you’re calling the ‘East-West Connection’ and focused around the Boyer intersection,” she said.

Stapleton later explained that the purpose of the workshop between staff and council is intended to impress upon councilors the implications of revisiting the Couplet component of the plan, and that it isn’t as easy — or inexpensive — as scrutinizing a few blocks of streets.

“These concepts were all developed together. What is happening on one section of roadway is affecting others,” she said, later adding, “I think the workshop will help you understand how all these things are layered on.”

For her part, Council President Kate McAlister said the larger plan encompassing the U.S. 2 realignment has already been adopted following extensive outreach.

“The public did have input before we voted on the Multimodal Plan and adopted the plan,” she said.

The workshop had been triggered by the council when it voted unanimously Feb. 1 to table a proposed amendment to the adopted Multimodal Transportation Master Plan, which envisioned realigning U.S. 2 to provide a direct connection between Boyer Avenue and Cedar Street via a new intersection east of where Pine Street and Boyer currently meet, then north along the former railroad right of way, and rejoining the highway at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Cedar.

The concept presented in the master plan amendment included widening U.S. 2 to a new five-lane signalized intersection replacing the current crossing at Boyer — and cut off access between North and South Boyer avenues.

In addition, the city envisioned creating a point of access 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 the property currently home to Dub’s Drive-in.

While the council opted to table the amendment in favor of gathering more information, it unanimously approved the purchase of the Dub’s property for $380,000, which it will lease back to current owners Marty and Jeralyn Mire, who plan to retire, then sublease the property to new owners who will operate the business at its current location until such time as the city needs to use the property.

According to the Couplet 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 traveling along the Sandpoint-Dover pathway to the envisioned intersection east of Boyer and Pine, where it would then join U.S. 2.

Many residents — including former city officials — have pushed back against the concept, citing its similarities to an earlier, similar proposal known as “the Curve,” which the Idaho Transportation Department fronted in 2011 and the city rejected in 2013. Community concern then centered on the size of the project, with opposition specifically to the notion of a five-lane U.S. 2 through the western edge of town, as well as impacts to surrounding businesses.

Those concerns have been in part repeated with reference to the Couplet, though city planners say it’s necessary to plan for as big a project as possible, lest ITD determines the highway needs to be widened and will come in with its own preferred option, which remains the formerly rejected Curve design.

“We need to make sure that we are accommodating what future demand is telling us it’s going to be,” said Preston Stinger, a transportation planner with Fehr and Peers, with which the city has contracted, at the Feb. 1 meeting. 

Councilor Jason Welker noted at the Feb. 1 meeting that ITD’s own analysis doesn’t foresee the need to widen U.S. 2 until 2055.

While the March 15 workshop will not include public participation, Stapleton told the council Feb. 15 that it could in the future decide to schedule another meeting in which residents are invited to take part in the discussion — after the informational session, however.

“After council has that information and if there will be further actions, we can discuss that at a future council meeting,” she said.

Mayor Shelby Rognstad agreed.

“We’ll all be in a position where we can make the best decision,” he said.

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