Group had sued ITD in 2003 over planned re-routing of vital north-south artery.
A group of more than a dozen members and supporters of the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition waved picket signs Friday along U.S. Highway 95 in southern Moscow, demanding safety improvements on a seven-mile stretch of the roadway that has yet to be improved.
The bright red signs carried messages like “Danger Ahead,” “Go Slow,” “Live for Holidays,” and “U.S. 95 Unsafe.” A news release from the coalition stated that the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) has shirked its duty by not taking safety measures on the highway over the decade it has taken to complete an environmental impact statement.
“While ITD proclaims ‘safety’ as its highway realignment project objective, its decades-long neglect of public well-being on current U.S. Highway 95 indicates otherwise,” according to the news release.
The same group sued the transportation department in 2003, citing environmental and safety concerns over the [ITD] preferred route of the highway along the western flank of Paradise Ridge. A federal judge granted an injunction and ordered the department to complete a full environmental impact statement, while design and construction on the rest of the highway continued from Thorn Creek Road to the top of the Lewiston Hill. That work finished in 2007.
Demonstration organizer Mary Ullrich, a resident of Paradise Ridge, said the coalition is working to encourage the transportation department to immediately make one of the most dangerous stretches of Idaho highway safer. She took exception to those who have villainized the group for blocking a new, four-lane, divided highway in the first place.
“One reason we’re doing this is we do care about safety,” Ullrich said, holding a half-dozen picket signs. “And we find it really hard to have people accuse us that we don’t care about safety, and that we’re responsible for people getting hurt on Riesenauer Hill. We do care, and we feel like it’s really unfair that people try to blame us.”
The area around Riesenauer Hill is the most dangerous in the north central Idaho highway district, according to state statistics. Transportation department spokesman Adam Rush said the department received a petition from the coalition demanding measures like reduced speed limits and the installation of safety lighting. It was signed by more than  people as of Friday, according to the website hosting the petition.
Rush said the department will study the petition and take its suggestions seriously.
“We’re always considering and evaluating public input,” he said. “As the public involvement coordinator, I take concerns and comments and input that folks have and share that with staff here. We’ll look at the areas where they’re asking for changes, and evaluate those.”
Ken Helm, the supervising engineer on the project, said there aren’t any interim safety measures planned around the Riesenauer Hill area. And he said that the Region 2 traffic engineer regularly conducts speed studies on area highways, but hasn’t acted yet.
“If there was a warrant for a reduction in speed, he probably would have done that,” Helm said. “We’ve got to get through the process and get this four-lane done. That’s what’s going to save lives up there.”
He doesn’t begrudge the coalition’s role in the long delay in completing the expansion to four lanes between Lewiston and Moscow, however, and said its lawsuit resulted in a better process.
“It hasn’t been all bad,” Helm said. “It gave us another chance to take a look and make sure what we end up doing is the right thing.”
The eastern route that passes closest to the top of the ridge remains as the department’s preferred alternative. But Helm said the route will ultimately be chosen by the Federal Highway Administration when the environmental impact statement is completed by mid-2015. The project is budgeted for $40 million over the 2016 and 2017 construction seasons.
Ullrich said the coalition is still opposed to the eastern route, and didn’t rule out further legal action to block it.
“We feel that they’re trying to put a highway up there where it should not go, and they had other alternatives,” she said, noting that several other routes were also explored. “They were all engineered to meet the federal highway safety standards.”
(By Joel Mills, The Lewiston