Final environmental impact statement submitted
The Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) is one step closer to beginning construction on a proposed reroute of U.S. Highway 95 to Moscow, after submitting its final environmental impact statement to the Federal Highway Administration on Tuesday.
“As we speak, the printer is running upstairs,” Kenneth Helm, project manager, said Tuesday. “It’s almost a 1,200-page document. That’s just the (final environmental impact statement), that’s not the tech reports.”
The final environmental impact statement is the transportation department’s most recent milestone in the more than decade-long effort to expand Highway 95 between Lewiston and Moscow to four divided lanes, said Helm, who works at the department’s District 2 office in Lewiston. The department was required to conduct the environmental impact analysis after a federal judge sided with the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition, a group of Moscow residents, in a 2003 injunction that halted construction north of Thorncreek Road to Moscow.
“This is what I consider a huge milestone in the project,” Helm said. “We’re not there yet, but this is the next big jump.”
Helm said he planned to send copies on Tuesday of the final environmental impact statement to the Federal Highway Administration district office in Boise, as well as to the environmental section of the Idaho Transportation Department headquarters office. He anticipated that they would take about three weeks to review the statement and provide comments and feedback.
A draft of the environmental impact statement was released in January 2013, for public comments and questions. Helm, who has been working on the project since its inception in 1998-99, said he and various consultants have spent the past year addressing each of those concerns and questions, revising technical reports, and creating new ones in an effort to produce the final environmental impact statement.
“We got probably close to 400 comments that we received from the public,” he said.
Both the draft and final environmental impact statement proposed three alternative routes and a “do nothing” approach, Helm said. The three alternative routes are a western (W4) route parallel to the Washington boarder, a central (C3) route following the current roadway, and an eastern (E2) route that runs along the base of Paradise Ridge.
Helm said the transportation department has maintained its preferred route as the eastern path along Paradise Ridge and the final environmental impact statement reflects that recommendation. Helm, however, emphasized the recommendation does not ensure the Paradise Ridge alternative will be selected for the reroute.
The next step in the project is for the Federal Highway Administration to submit the statement to its legal section for review. Helm said he does not anticipate the administration will have many questions. The worst-case scenario would be the transportation department having to resubmit the statement, which he thinks would take about a week to do.
“It’s been 15 years we’ve been working on this, and I think we’re there,” Helm said. “I can’t think of anything that we’ve missed.”
Helm said he thinks it will take the legal section awhile to review the statement because of the number of technical reports included to address areas of concern like wildlife, groundwater, wind, weather, weeds, and safety.
“This is a big document,” Helm said. “There’s a lot of tech reports, and I’m going to say it’s probably going to take them a couple months to get through that tech review.”
Once the Federal Highway Administration gives the statement its approval, the document will be placed in the Federal Register for 30 days, to allow other agencies to review and make comments. Helm said that, after the 30 days, the transportation department will create a separate document called a record of decision. That document is a response to the comments from other federal agencies, as well as a summary of the entire process, which will state the route alignment selected by the Federal Highway Administration.
“That document goes through a review process and is signed off by the Federal Highway Administration,” Helm said.
Once the transportation department has a selected route, Helm said final design and right-of-way plans for the new stretch of the highway can begin. The department has funding for the design phase in hand. Helm said about $40 million of federal funding was also shifted to the fiscal years 2016 and 2017 for construction – about $20 million for each year.
“My goal is to get through the whole process by summer 2016, so we can start construction some time in 2016,” Helm said. “That will be very aggressive, but doable.”
(By Elizabeth Rudd, The Lewiston Tribune)