Report on Highway 95 Safety Petition & Demonstration

PRDC Safety Petition

Thanks to everyone who signed, circulated, and wrote compelling comments for the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition (PRDC) petition advocating safety measures and sensible re-routing for dangerous U.S. Highway 95 south of Moscow, Idaho! [1]  In just three weeks, almost 500 Idaho and American taxpayers contributed their signatures and thoughts to this community effort.  Tim Hatten, a PRDC board member, wrote a much appreciated letter to the editor of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, inviting petition signatures before the 11 pm Wednesday, December 17 deadline [2].  PRDC organizers and board members Diane Baumgart, Stephan Flint, Joann Muneta, Mary Ullrich, and Helen Yost worked hours of outreach to collectively gather 230 hard-won, hand-written signatures, almost matching the 257 online signatures.  On Thursday, December 18, Diane and Mary sent 487 copies of the paper and online petition signatures via overnight mail to the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) in Lewiston and to ITD Director Brian Ness and the Federal Highway Administration, both in Boise.  Unfortunately, the half dozen reporters who covered the December 19 PRDC safety demonstration underquoted signature tallies or only mentioned 270 online signatures, as supporters continue to sign the PRDC safety petition.

During the culminating week of this safety campaign, KRFP Radio Free Moscow station manager Leigh Robartes thoroughly covered the background of PRDC’s petition and upcoming Friday demonstration targeting ITD inaction and PRDC proposed resolutions of Highway 95 traffic safety problems [3-5].  The December 16, 17, and 18 KRFP Evening Reports offered excellent, full news stories and an interview with PRDC board member Steve Ullrich, exploring regionally shared concerns about Highway 95 safety and re-routing impacts on native Palouse Prairie remnant habitat and wildlife.

In 2003 and again in 2013, PRDC wrote to ITD, requesting that the state agency implement additional, site-specific, safety measures to mitigate U.S. Highway 95 conditions in the Reisenauer Hill area south of Moscow, Idaho.  PRDC suggested flashing caution signs and enforceable, reduced speed limits to improve safety on the notoriously dangerous stretch of U.S. 95 prone to numerous traffic accidents and fatalities.  Because these previous requests have not produced ITD results, PRDC prepared the current petition urging ITD to immediately take these and other appropriate, interim actions and to consider public safety and highway realignment options that ITD has neglected for decades.  Such efforts could save traveler lives and property, especially during inclement and winter weather, and could preserve the unique, rare, native Palouse Prairie ecosystem that Highway 95 re-routing may soon threaten.

PRDC Safety Demonstration

Regional media and residents and PRDC members made and brought signs and/or gathered on the Highway 95 sidewalk around the Palouse River bridge, south of Palouse River Drive in Moscow, between 1:30 and 4:00 pm on Friday, December 19 [6-8].  The resulting public, roadside demonstration in rotating shifts highlighted shared citizen concerns and supported PRDC-proposed measures to improve public safety on U.S. Highway 95 south of Moscow.

On Friday, people on both sides of the [U.S. 95 re-routing] argument came together to fight for one cause, safety…Latah County residents along Highway 95 on Friday afternoon held up signs warning drivers to slow down and beware of the dangerous twists and turns along Reisenauer Hill [9].

Drivers rolling in either direction along U.S. Highway 95 on the south end of Moscow on Friday afternoon could see more than a dozen demonstrators on each side of the road near its intersection with Palouse River Drive…Brightly colored signs were aimed at students and staff leaving the University of Idaho campus for the winter break…All of the messages highlighted the need for cautious driving through the section of the two-lane highway…A couple of supporters of the [eastern re-routing] plan also were out demonstrating with signs emphasizing safety…[and] would like to see ITD install interim safety features as soon as possible [10].

A group of more than a dozen members and supporters of the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition waved picket signs on 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 [11].

Besides extensive coverage by the three largest media outlets just quoted, KRFP recorded conversations with PRDC board members Stephan Flint, Mary Ullrich, Helen Yost, and Tim Hatten on-site at the Highway 95 Safety Demonstration, and broadcast their perspectives on myriad safety and environmental impacts imposed by current and proposed U.S. Highway 95 configurations [12].  Tom Hansen of Moscow Cares graciously composed a music-backed video compilation of the demonstration [13].  His video and a picture from the still expanding PRDC facebook album reached all the way to Boise via a Saturday morning, online article by the Boise Weekly that stated PRDC petition demands less explicitly echoed by other media coverage [14]:

“Taxpayers are requesting that ITD lower and seek enforcement of the speed limit around Reisenauer Hill, erect reduced speed limit warning signs with weather-activated, flashing lights at both approaches to the hill, and install rumble strips in the center and fog lines, and in the traffic lanes before the warning signs, on this section of Highway 95,” PRDC wrote in a statement [15].

PRDC and Wild Idaho Rising Tide (WIRT) are especially grateful for the couple dozen participants who contributed to the great spirit, turnout, and media coverage of the December 19 demonstration.  Occupants of passing vehicles (even chip trucks!) and community members on foot in the area waved or honked their horns in support, and some stopped to share their concerns and common-sense experiences of slowing to below the speed limit when traveling the scary, risky route (like much of U.S. 95 in Idaho).  After all except a handful of the demonstrators departed, a brief rainbow during sunset completed the action, with one wider, more colorful leg touching down on the hilltop of Highway 95/Main Street to the north, and one more slender, faint but bright whitish leg appearing over the Plantation Tavern and Myrtle Street to the east, where many of the participants had parked for the event.

Highway 95 Re-Routing

Plenty of controversy has accompanied proposals to widen and straighten Highway 95 from Moscow to Thorn Creek Road, where a previous reconstruction project expanded the highway to four lanes with a median all the way to the Lewiston Hill.  Most regional residents agree that the six-plus-mile stretch of highway needs improvements to enhance traveler safety, but the best methods to accomplish this shared goal have encountered contentious debate.  The lengthy process to reach a final decision on highway renovation has prolonged and exacerbated safety concerns for the current route.  As the scene of numerous traffic accidents and fatalities, the Reisenauer Hill area of Highway 95 continues to pose serious threats to travelers during inclement weather and winter conditions.

Although the recent PRDC petition and demonstration focused on Highway 95 safety, conflicts over realignment arose again on the Friday roadside and in news coverage.

Most of the demonstrators were members of the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition, a group that has been fighting for years against the Idaho Transportation Department’s preferred [E-2 eastern] realignment route…[that] would cross Paradise Ridge [10].

In 2016, the Idaho Transportation Department plans to continue re-routing and widening Highway 95 just south of Moscow.  But for over a decade, environmentalists have fought that construction, while the people who live along the highway support it [9].

A news release from the coalition stated that the Idaho Transportation Department has shirked its duty by not taking safety measures on the highway over the decade it has taken to complete an environmental impact statement…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…[Some people] have villainized the group for blocking a new, four-lane, divided highway in the first place [11].

To set the record straight, Mary Ullrich of PRDC has issued a letter to the Lewiston Tribune editor, clarifying some aspects of the Tribune article about the event and issue.  It notes that neither the extended delay in building the new highway between Thorn Creek Road and Moscow nor ongoing accidents on current U.S. 95 should be blamed on the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition and its 2003 lawsuit requesting full environmental analysis of the realignment project.  The 2003 federal court ruling in PRDC’s favor forced ITD to adhere to its own regulations (which it tried to skip) by conducting an environmental impact statement (EIS) study, required of any highway construction involving new right-of-way.  Most EISs take three to four, not ten-plus, years to complete.  Moreover, ITD lacked funds to proceed with its chosen eastern re-routing, as clearly stated several times during the public, informational “Breakfast Meetings” held by ITD in Moscow during 2005 to 2007.

Nonetheless, the Saturday media accounts of this safety campaign did amplify the public’s and PRDC’s sense of urgency in alleviating unsafe conditions on the Thorn Creek Road to Moscow segment of Highway 95, through the PRDC petition and anticipated, subsequent ITD actions:

The group has created a petition demanding safety modifications that would make the stretch of highway safer [10].

The area around Reisenauer Hill is the most dangerous in the north central Idaho highway district, according to state statistics…The transportation department…received a petition from the coalition…It was signed by more than [487] people as of Friday [11].

Based on the number of accidents and fatalities, Reisenauer Hill is one of the most dangerous parts of highway in the state, especially during bad weather…ITD plans on re-routing…so that highway traffic avoids Reisenauer Hill.  But the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition said that won’t fix the problem…’Local traffic, emergency services,…people who live just outside of town, they’ll have to use this highway.’…So PRDC is urging ITD for the third time in a decade to implement safety measures along the risky stretch of highway…And they want it done now, because until ITD finishes the highly debated re-routing of the highway, every driver and passenger’s life is at risk.  PRDC also sent a petition that ITD received on Friday.  [487] people signed in support of immediately putting up these safety measures along current Highway 95 [9].

E-2 construction and use will not mitigate traffic dangers on and around Reisenauer Hill during two or more impending years of highway work or when this U.S. 95 stretch converts to a substandard, state-abandoned Latah County road.  Thus, this eastern alignment would provide significantly less safety than the central alternative C-3 that PRDC strongly recommends.  With predictably less ice, snow, ice fog, cross winds, elevation differentials, and animal crossings than E-2, this lower, divided, four-lane traverse would permanently increase Highway 95 safety and would minimize detrimental impacts to wildlife, critically endangered Palouse Prairie, and business and residence displacements.  The Highway 95 upgrade from two to four lanes with a median would provide additional safety.  Thankfully, broadcast KRFP interviews and Moscow-Pullman Daily News coverage presented a bounty of information about possible eastern re-routing effects [12]:

Along with other problems the E-2 route would create, it would likely increase the frequency of collisions between vehicles and animals, such as deer and elk…[and cause] heavy losses of wetlands, prime farmland, and conservation reserves, and removal of acres of pine stands and related habitat.  It also would cause more noise and have a wider visual impact, and not be the safest for travel…The route would be unsafe because it is at a higher elevation than other routes, and would abandon portions of U.S. 95, which would become county road [10].

ITD maintains that all of the proposed routes are “safe,” although the draft EIS issued two years ago did not adequately consider weather conditions, large animal impacts, or accidents along abandoned Highway 95 including Reisenauer Hill.  WIRT activists harbor further reservations about the state transportation agency’s preferred E-2 alternative [16].  Not only would it more heartlessly sacrifice traveler safety and endanger native Palouse Prairie remnants and reliant plant and animal life, eastern re-routing would facilitate an industrial corridor to Alberta tar sands and Bakken shale oil exploitation in the North American interior.  Moscow megaload blockades may have represented only practice sessions for defense of the last Palouse Prairie.

No matter when the Idaho Transportation Department releases the final Thorn Creek Road to Moscow EIS, PRDC and WIRT will remain vigilant.  The Tribune reporter who talked with Lewiston ITD District 2 senior planner and project manager Ken Helm on December 19 postponed earlier EIS release estimations by PRDC and the Daily News:

A federal environmental impact statement is on track to be published in the Federal Register early next year [2015].  A start date for construction…is dependent on the availability of funding [10].

The eastern route that passes closest to the top of the ridge remains as the department’s preferred alternative.  But…the route will ultimately be chosen by the Federal Highway Administration, when the environmental impact statement is completed by mid-2015…[for] the 2016 and 2017 construction seasons…The coalition is still opposed to the eastern route, and didn’t rule out further legal action to block it [11].

In the final EIS, PRDC hopes that ITD and the Federal Highway Administration will not again choose the previously preferred E-2 alternative for Highway 95 realignment and expansion on the slopes of Paradise Ridge, the most environmentally destructive and invasive route.  Over the last decade, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Fish and Wildlife Service have objected to E-2 implementation.

[1] Petition to the Idaho Transportation Department Requesting Immediate, Site-Specific Actions to Mitigate Dangerous Conditions on Reisenauer Hill (November 28, 2014 Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition)

[2] Letter: Sign the Petition (December 16, 2014 Tim Hatten letter to the Moscow-Pullman Daily News)

[3] Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition Collecting Petition Signatures for Reduced Speed Limit on U.S. 95’s Reisenauer Hill (December 16, 2014 KRFP)

(Between 14:05 and 10:05 LoFi of the Tuesday Evening Report U.S. 95 Safety Petition)

[4] Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition on U.S. 95 Safety South of Moscow (December 17, 2014 KRFP)

(Introduced from 19:15 to 18:53 LoFi and covered between 16:16 and 6:44 LoFi of the Wednesday Evening Report Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition)

[5] Paradise Ridge Environmental Issues Related to Proposed Eastern U.S. 95 Alignment (December 18, 2014 KRFP)

(Between 15:15 and 6:15 LoFi of the Thursday Evening Report Inslee Budget)

[6] Highway 95 Safety Petition and Demonstration (December 16, 2014 Helen Yost, Tim Hatten, & Wild Idaho Rising Tide facebook event)

[7] Highway 95 Demonstration (December 16, 2014 Tim Hatten facebook event)

[8] Highway 95 Safety Petition and Demonstration (December 16, 2014 Wild Idaho Rising Tide website post)

[9] Demonstrators Want Safety on Highway 95 (December 20, 2014 KLEW)

[10] Group Demonstrates along Highway 95 (December 20, 2014 Moscow-Pullman Daily News)

[11] Protesters Call for More Safety along U.S. 95 (December 20, 2014 Lewiston Tribune)

[12] Voices from the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition U.S. 95 Safety Demo (December 19, 2014 KRFP)

(Between 31:28 and 1:30 LoFi on the Friday Evening Report U.S. 95 Demo)

[13] U.S. 95 Safety Petition and Demonstration – December 19, 2014 (December 19, 2014 Tom Hansen video)

[14] Highway 95 Safety Petition and Demonstration 12-19-14 (December 19, 2014 Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition photo album)

[15] Video: Protest Points to ‘Unsafe’ Stretch of Idaho Highway (December 20, 2014 Boise Weekly)

[16] Why WIRT Cares About This (December 19, 2014 Wild Idaho Rising Tide)

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