The scene to the west of U.S. Highway 95 – and its three proposed realignment route choices – is breathtaking from Paradise Ridge, with rolling green meadows and the occasional picturesque structure in spacious rural settings.
The existing highway is off in the distance and only takes up a small section of the view as cars and trucks appear to be rolling specks. But look down at the knoll underfoot and prairie flowers – iris, camas, lupine, groundsel, lomatium, prairie smoke and arrow leaf balsamroot within other native plants, invasive weeds and planted grass – pop up here and there.
Thin, long deer trails also run through the grass.
Steve and Mary Ullrich, both members of the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition, live nearby the section of the ridge, where they marked a site with a long line of red balloons stretching about 600 feet. The section is one where plenty of animals roam and some ponds are on the far side of the balloons.
The balloons marked the approximate width and location where the highway realignment preferred by the Idaho Department of Transportation would run. ITD refers to it as E-2. That plan and the other two options, C-3 and W-4, will improve 6 1/2 miles of the highway running south from Moscow to Thorncreek Road.
“If I were a deer, I’d be pissed,” Ullrich said of the proposed E-2 route, which he said would cut animals off from their water.
The highway itself would have four lanes – wider than the current span – to improve driving safety. Up to one-third of the space would be for road and shoulder, but wide swaths of land on each side are planned for by ITD to protect wildlife.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game recommended years ago that ITD not choose E-2. A letter written in 2007 by Dave Cadwallader, the IDFG’s Clearwater regional supervisor, stated it would “have the greatest direct and indirect impacts to wildlife and other resources” of the proposed routes.
The U.S. Department of Interior also stated in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that E-2 “would have the greatest impact to the Palouse Prairie, a nationally recognized critically endangered ecosystem.”
The Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition and some government agencies, including IDFG, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have said during earlier planning phases they prefer C-3, which would be nearest to the original route on the northern stretch.
Some, including at one point Fish and Game, have suggested ITD create underpasses for animals to safely travel around the area without having to cross the new stretch of highway, but cost will be a factor.
“The cost of creating a wildlife underpass versus a more open area of highway are difficult to determine without additional design work,” said Adam Rush, an ITD spokesman.
The Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition has also brought up concerns about E-2 regarding losses of wetlands, farm land and conservation reserve; and removal of acres of pine stands and related habitat. It also would cause more noise, have a wider visual impact and not be the safest for travel because it is at a higher elevation than other routes, the coalition contends.
Patricia Clyde said her late husband, Robert, own land along E-2 and C-3. E-2 is preferred because it wouldn’t cut through their family’s prime farm land as C-3 would. C-3, she said, would eliminate a great deal of this working land and leave the remaining farm land cut in two.
Clyde pointed out it was her husband’s intention to work with ITD “while ensuring the integrity of the remaining farmland which stretches along the proposed route from Reisennauer Hill to Zietler Road and beyond closer to Moscow,” she said.
And with C-3, a good number of existing properties near the current highway would need to be taken out, she said.
LeNelle McInturff, who lives between Moscow and Genesee, said she’s driven the stretch of the old highway for decades, and more than anything, she added, she wants to see a safer route – and E-2 appears to her to be the best option.
“It’s just a dangerous situation,” McInturff said. “But there’s prime farm land we also need to protect. We need to preserve that land.”
The project could reach its decision phase by or during the fall. Notice in the Federal Register of release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement and the 30-day review period could begin soon. ITD’s goal is to start construction in 2017 and have the work completed in a couple of years.
Though the E-2 route has been estimated to cost up to $48 million, it’s actually not yet known how much the project will cost. Price will be more apparent once a final alternative is chosen and additional design work is completed, Rush said.