In spite of years-long efforts to persuade transportation officials not to realign U.S. Highway 95 from Moscow to Thorncreek Road over Paradise Ridge and through an untouched area of the Palouse Prairie, the federal Record of Decision was signed this week verifying the choice to do just that.
“It’s a great day for the public,” said Ken Helm, project manager for the Idaho Transportation Department.
“It’s kind of what we expected,” Steve Flint, one of the board members of the Palouse Ridge Defense Coalition, said about what the group considers a disappointing choice.
In 2003, the coalition and other groups successfully argued the ITD failed to adequately examine the environmental effects of its plans for U.S. Highway 95, and a judge ordered a full environmental impact statement process be completed.
Last year, the group announced it was willing to take legal action based on the latest project documents, specifically the FEIS, if they appeared inadequate.
ITD describes the selected route, referred to as E-2, as following the current U.S. Highway 95 from Thorncreek Road north to the top of Reisenauer Hill, before realignment eastward. It would then reconnect to the existing highway near the grain elevators located south of Moscow.
Flint and others concerned about E-2’s potential effects wanted officials to choose the route named C-3, which would run just east of the current highway.
The coalition and some government agencies, including Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said during earlier planning phases they preferred the C-3 route to protect the prairie’s varieties of vegetation and wildlife inhabitants.
Flint said he hadn’t had a chance to review the latest document announcing the choice of the E-2 route.
“We’re pretty much going to have to look at it before we formulate any plans,” Flint said. “We have to see how the Record addresses or ignores our concerns.”
Those concerns are about the Palouse Prairie, a nationally recognized critically endangered ecosystem, according to the U.S. Department of Interior.
Also frequently cited by the coalition are losses of wildlife, wetlands, farmland 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.
Helm said the EIS for the project was started in 2004.
Realignment work on the highway was completed from Genesee to Thorncreek in 2007, he said.
Next for ITD is to do final design and rights-of-way planning, with a goal of putting the project up to bid by fall 2017.
“We anticipate it taking a couple of seasons to do,” Helm said, adding that would mean possible completion of the realignment in 2019.
Improving the 6-mile stretch of highway was originally slated to be finished in 2008 or 2009.
Though the E-2 route has been estimated to cost up to $48 million, more preliminary work would have to be completed for an updated estimate.