Environmental group ‘disappointed’ with latest proposal for road south of Moscow
MOSCOW – An environmental group that sued to block construction on U.S. Highway 95 south of Moscow nine years ago is ramping up to oppose the latest version of the project.
“We’re certainly disappointed that they’re still going with an eastern alternative,” said Al Poplawsky, who served as the treasurer of the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition during its lawsuit against the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) and the Federal Highway Administration. “We were hoping otherwise.”
In 2003, the coalition joined with the Palouse Group of the Sierra Club and the Idaho Conservation League to secure an injunction from U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill, which forced the transportation department to complete a lengthy environmental impact review process.
The transportation department released a draft of the environmental impact statement this week that calls for an eastern route for the highway that crosses the western shoulder of scenic Paradise Ridge near Moscow. The study analyzed 11 potential routes in three corridors: western, central, and eastern.
A similar proposed route triggered the 2003 lawsuit, with wildlife concerns, protection of native Palouse prairie, wetland preservation, urban sprawl, and climate-related safety questions in a list of objections.
Poplawsky said a revived coalition will probably at least demand an extension of the public comment period on the environmental impact statement, and could even go as far as filing another lawsuit.
“You can always sue,” he said, noting it is too early to announce any firm decisions. “Our approach is to look at the document, analyze it, and if we find the eastern route unsuitable again, to put forth an argument to look at one of the other two routes for action.”
But transportation department project engineer Ken Helm expressed confidence that the environmental study was thorough enough to withstand any new challenges.
“We have done quite a few studies, actually 14 studies altogether, to back up the draft environmental impact statement,” Helm said. “We’ve done what the judge requested from the court case, and we’re presenting it now to the public.”
Helm said that while safety isn’t always the primary factor in choosing any particular highway alignment, it was the biggest reason for choosing the eastern route for the new stretch of U.S. 95. The highway between Thorn Creek Road and Moscow is one of the most dangerous in the state in terms of serious accidents, according to the state agency.
The study asserts that the eastern route would result in an approximate 69 percent reduction in accident rates. But Poplawsky said that assessment may be based on insufficient weather data.
“It’s higher elevation, and we all know how Steakhouse Hill (north of Moscow) looks for the last quarter mile before the top in the winter,” he said. “A lot of times you’ve got snow and ice but none any lower.”
Poplawsky said the coalition still has thousands of dollars in the bank from its 2003 campaign, and will start fundraising again if it decides to hire an attorney. It will meet in the next week or two to officially reactivate and elect officers, he said.
He said it is also possible that the group will bring back its “Don’t Pave Paradise” bumper stickers. The slogan was a common sight during the 2003 campaign, and faded stickers can still be seen from time to time on Moscow vehicles.
Helm said he is eager to hear what questions the public will have at a coming hearing on the project. The hearing runs from 2 to 8:30 pm on January 23 at the Best Western University Inn in Moscow.
“I think I’ve studied about everything that I know of and what I’ve been told to look at,” he said. “I think we’re prepared.”
(By Joel Mills, The Lewiston Tribune)