Environmental Concerns Remain for U.S. 95 Project

Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition member plans to address issues at public hearing for DEIS

The Idaho Transportation Department’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for its U.S. Highway 95 realignment project from Thorn Creek Road to Moscow is now available, and there is plenty of reading to get done prior to the January 23 public hearing.

The environmental study was required by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in 2003 when he sided with the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition in a lawsuit against the transportation department.

The coalition claimed that highway regulators did not address concerns regarding plans to reroute that section of U.S. 95 along Paradise Ridge and the damage that might be done to Palouse prairie habitat.

Al Poplawsky, a research associate with the University of Idaho’s department of plant, soil, and entomological sciences, said he will continue to argue against a route that would affect the Palouse prairie habitat, as he did nine years ago.

The preferred eastern realignment alternative starts at Thorn Creek and shifts about 2,000 feet east at the top of Reisenauer Hill, runs along the base of Paradise Ridge, and rejoins the existing highway at the Primeland Cooperative grain elevators at the southern end of Moscow.

“We were in favor of keeping the original road bed,” said Poplawsky of the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition when 11 alternatives were first proposed.  “And of course straightening grades and so forth.”

The transportation department identified the dangerous, curvy stretch of highway for realignment more than ten years ago.  There have been 220 accidents along the 6.5-mile stretch since, resulting in 138 injuries and six deaths.

Advantages for ITD’s preferred eastern alignment include lower costs, a predicted lower accident rate compared with the other two alternatives, and less effect to tributaries, the report states.

The eastern alternative’s primary disadvantage, according to the DEIS, is its potential effect on the long-eared myotis (a small bat), northern alligator lizard, and pygmy nuthatch.  It will also likely be the noisiest.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Environmental Protection Agency all preferred a central alternative; however, the statement argues its path would displace eight businesses and seven homes.  The eastern alternative does not affect businesses but would require 2.9 acres of Benson Mobile Home Park property to be acquired and five homes removed.

Poplawsky said the coalition is not fully formed again, but he plans to complete his review of the DEIS before the public hearing.

“Ostensibly, it is possible they could change their minds to one of the two other alternatives,” he said, adding another concern he has is the elevation of the favored alternative and how it could be affected during the winter.

Moscow City Councilor Walter Steed is not picky about which alternative route is ultimately picked.

“I do not care which one, just build something,” he said.  “I truly do not care which one they do, just build something.”

Steed had been on the city’s transportation commission in 2005, when a community profile-induced development report for the project was completed.

“It has been way too long getting even to this point,” he said.  “I am just sick of the accidents and the deaths that have occurred on this stretch.”

He said none of the realignment alternatives would preclude a ring road bypass around the city, adding that was stalled by Latah County’s desire not to have it run through its jurisdiction.  There has also been no conceptual design or funding for the project, the DEIS states.

“The ring road, in my mind, would not have precluded a western route,” Steed said.  “The problem with the western route, to my memory, is it is the longest, and length equals cost.”

Moscow Supervisor Gary Riedner said a truck bypass is still being discussed by the city’s transportation commission, and once a final U.S. 95 route is decided, it will help with planning.

“I think it is definitely another piece of the puzzle,” he said.  “The better we know what is planned down there, the better we can react to that or plan for that so it works out better for the community.”

The public comment period for the DEIS ends February 23, and a revised EIS will be submitted to the Federal Highway Administration for final approval.

(By Brandon Macz, staff writer, The Moscow-Pullman Daily News)

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