The Traffic Transition: A look back on the big switch-over

By Cameron Rasmusson
Reader Staff

For some residents, the change to two-way traffic in downtown Sandpoint may feel like it came out of nowhere. Even so, it’s a transition that has been decades in the making.

A road crew member takes down the one-way signs in downtown Sandpoint. Photo by Ben Olson.

A road crew member takes down the one-way signs in downtown Sandpoint. Photo by Ben Olson.

A project spanning several City Council makeups, mayoral administrations and city department heads, the traffic changes are rooted in the Sandpoint Comprehensive Plan and built by into a series of decisions over decades. The street plan isn’t without its critics. But for all the different personalities who have contributed to the process, it represents a notably singular vision.

“For me, every city decision is guided by a desire to make sure that growth … increases quality of life rather than decreases it,” said John Reuter, a former councilman (and, full disclosure, a former co-owner of this paper). “To me, this whole decision (on two-way city streets) is best understood in the context of those decisions.”

To a large degree, that cohesion is derived from the Sandpoint Comprehensive Plan. Adopted in 2009 after 20 months of public engagement and City Council tweaking, the plan is the guiding document for Sandpoint City Council decisions both great and small and is designed with a 20-year outlook in mind. While city planning and street design are referenced throughout the document, the most significant section concerning downtown Sandpoint is found under the economic development section. Under “downtown revitalization,” the plan calls for a streetscape that “encourages an active street life” friendly to pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers alike.

A map of the new traffic configuration in downtown Sandpoint.

A map of the new traffic configuration in downtown Sandpoint.

Reuter, who served on the City Council from June 2008 to January 2012 and was a player in early planning, said the transition to two-way is a reflection of that mentality. Based on his experiences with downtown business owners and traffic experts, he said two-way traffic was often cited as the better option to encourage lingering within a given district. It emphasizes slower speeds, increased parking (which the city achieved through diagonal striping) and more varied navigation options. One-way traffic, meanwhile, is generally the most efficient method to flow traffic out of an area, which is why it was the Idaho Transportation Department’s preferred option when it controlled sections of Cedar, Pine and First.

“ITD was mostly concerned with one question: How do we get trucks through here as quickly as possible?” Reuter said.

Indeed, removing truck traffic from downtown Sandpoint has long been a concern of the Sandpoint City Council. The completion of the Sand Creek Byway in July 2012 was a huge stride toward that goal. The project, which had been discussed for decades, eliminated the need for U.S. 95 traffic to enter Sandpoint and diverted the largest source of commercial trucking away from town.

With the problem of U.S. 95 addressed, the city and state turned its attention to U.S. 2. ITD officials proposed to reroute traffic by constructing an extension from U.S. 2 to Fifth Avenue on state-owned right of way. According to Carrie Logan, first a councilwoman and then Sandpoint mayor, the city was largely in favor of the Curve until the first concepts came out.

“Those were pretty intense conversations that involved not only conversation on a local level but also at the ITD board meetings  that (Kody Van Dyk, then Sandpoint Public Works director), (Sandpoint City Attorney Scot Campbell) and I attended,” said Logan.

The project already had complications, including the displacement of businesses (in particular, the ouster of Dubs from its exiting location drove public outcry). For the City Council, however, the ultimate deal-breaker was a wide, complicated intersection at Second and Boyer. With the city emphasizing safety for foot and bike traffic and ITD bound to building toward traffic flow efficiency, it was a case of conflicting priorities that couldn’t be reconciled.

“They were stuck on their number projections for future traffic which we knew to be in error,” Logan said.

The city and ITD ultimately reached a compromise: Fifth Avenue would be reconfigured to divert U.S. 2 away from downtown Sandpoint. It was an option ITD officials described at the time as a short-term solution, one that would be viable until it began failing the department’s performance standards. At that point, the city and state would need to find another solution.

The agreement set the foundation for the two-way traffic plan enacted this past month. Under its terms, the city regained control of its downtown streets, which opens the door for infrastructure, maintenance and aesthetic improvements, including substantial sewer work. It’s a vision largely outlined in the Sandpoint Downtown Streets Guide, which the city adopted in late 2012 following the Byway’s completion.

“It’s really thrilling for me because it shows the city’s willingness to move forward, progress and undertake pretty darn big projects,” Logan said. “This isn’t a little project by any means.”

On the other hand, many city residents are far from thrilled as they adjust to the new traffic patterns. However, Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon said that the rollout has been surprisingly smooth, at least from a law enforcement perspective. He pulled up the numbers last week and found that only five accidents reported in the area —numbers well inside the norm.

Likewise, a serious problem two weeks ago involving trucks attempting to turn onto Church from Fourth is largely solved. According to Coon, that problem was primarily due to roadwork on Church and the fact that the street hadn’t yet transitioned to two-way traffic.

Of course, there are still headaches, including the historically troublesome intersection of First Avenue and Bridge Street, which leads to City Beach. However, Coon said the situation will only improve with time.

“As everyone gets used to the change, it’ll get better,” he said.


Downtown throwback:

Past mayor Gene Holt reflects on 1970s decision to go to one-way streets

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff Writer

When Sandpoint’s downtown streets became one-way in July 1979, the Bonner County Daily Bee reported that the new grid system was “an experiment” and the city did “not know for sure yet” how it would work.

Looking south down First Ave. in Sandpoint, circa 1957. Photograph by William Lutzke and courtesy of Bonner County Historical Society.

Looking south down First Ave. in Sandpoint, circa 1957. Photograph by William Lutzke and courtesy of Bonner County Historical Society.

That experiment, meant to alleviate traffic congestion, lasted nearly four decades. At the time, past mayor Gene Holt said he hoped the best for the new one-way system.

“The businessmen and others agree that what we have now doesn’t particularly work,” he said in 1979. “We needed to do something different. If this works, we’re better off.”

And it did work — for some time. But just like today’s locals are concerned about the newly converted two-way traffic — meant to help traffic flow from Highway 2 directly out of Sandpoint, — people 38 years ago were worried about the implications of a one-way grid.

Holt remembers it well.

“You get your negative feedback then just like you do now,” he said this week.

Holt said that while he doesn’t want to say what the city was wrong to make the streets two-way again, he said he sees issues in going back to the old system.

“Some of it makes sense, but I don’t think the parking makes a whole lot of sense,” he said.

In 1979, Holt said the Traffic Safety Committee of the time would study whether the one-way street configuration would benefit from diagonal parking. It was decided such parking wouldn’t be practical. Holt said the new two-way diagonal parking in places like Cedar Street makes it dangerous for drivers to pull out from perpendicular roadways.

Holt also said that although the 1979 switch to one-way streets received pushback from some community members, people eventually got used to it. This time, he’s a little more worried.

“Local people who get used to something don’t like radical changes,” he said. “I don’t think people learn by going backwards.”

Cycling Safety in Sandpoint: The ‘Idaho Stop’, shadows and not getting yourself killed

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

It’s always a good time to promote cycling safety in Sandpoint, but with the recent transition to two-way traffic, it’s more important than ever.

Whether you ride a bicycle every day or whenever it catches your fancy, it’s important to know the rules of the road. Also, on the flip side, motorists should know the law to avoid any potential collisions.

The best rule is to remember the role of a bicycle: when a rider is atop a bike, it should be thought of as a vehicle. When a rider is off of the bike, pushing it or holding it, they should be considered a pedestrian. What’s the difference? Quite a bit, actually.

Vehicles should always stop for pedestrians crossing the street, including those pushing bicycles. Vehicles do not, however, need to stop and let bicycles cross. Just think: would you stop and let a car go? Often, when vehicles are trying to be polite and let a bicycle cross, they are in fact jamming up traffic even worse.

Also, there is a law called “The Idaho Stop” that allows cyclists to treat a stop sign as a yield sign and a red light as a stop sign. It was named as such because it was first instituted in Idaho in 1982.

The law was enacted in an attempt to make cycling easier and safer, de-emphasizing criminalization of cycling infractions and placing the focus on yielding the right-of-way safely. The Idaho Transportation Department said the “Idaho bicycle-collision statistics confirm that the Idaho [Stop] law has resulted in no discernible increase in injuries or fatalities to bicyclists.”

Here’s how the Idaho Stop works: A bicyclist can roll through a stop sign as if it is a yield sign, taking care to ensure both lanes are clear. At a red light, the cyclist must come to a stop, and if the way is clear, they can cross while there is a red light.

The reason for these laws is evident if you ride a bicycle in a city. Stopping and starting at intersections without traffic causes a major loss of momentum, which is a big deal on two wheels. The problem arises when a bicycle is approaching an intersection with a stop sign. The traffic will often slow and sometimes stop, causing the bicyclist to have to stop anyway, which defeats the purpose.

The best bet is to always drive defensively, but understand that often bicyclists are timing their crossing of the intersection to coincide with your vehicle’s rate of speed. Slowing or stopping only causes delays for both parties.

Take a look at the rules of the road to the right and ride safely, Sandpoint.


1. Ride on the right side of the street

 •Ride with the flow of traffic and make full turns into travel lanes

•Ride in the correct direction on one-way streets.

2. Full stop at red lights

•Use extended arm signals when making left and right turns. 

3. Rolling stop at stop signs

•Slow down to “Look & Listen” for oncoming traffic.

•Full stop when needed; proceed through when there is no traffic

4. Share the road with drivers

•Sandpoint’s preferred cycle routes are marked with “sharrow” pavement lines.

•Ride single file and keep a steady pace with the flow of traffic.

5. Sidewalks are for pedestrians

 •Walk your bike when using downtown sidewalks.

 •Yield to walkers and give special consideration to the elderly.

•Use common courtesy… it’s always appreciated.

6. Use safety gear

•Wear a helmet and light-colored clothing for maximum visibility.

•Bright headlight and red taillight are needed after dark.

•Lock your bike frame for theft protection.

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