SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) A controversial highway project along the shore of Lake Pend Oreille to route high-speed traffic away from downtown Sandpoint, Idaho, won final approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The corps issued a final permit Oct. 3 that will allow the Idaho Transportation Department to begin work on the Sand Creek Byway project, which has been in the works since the 1950s.
The $70 million byway on U.S. 95 is part of a series of huge construction projects in northern Idaho’s heavily touristed lake country that are designed to improve traffic safety.
The byway is opposed by environmentalists who worry it will destroy the fragile creek through downtown and be a blight on Sandpoint’s scenic waterfront.
“The corps’ permit decision balances the needs of the public and community with protection of the aquatic resources of Sand Creek and its adjacent wetlands,” the corps said.
The North Idaho Community Action Network has been the most vocal opponent of the project. Liz Sedler of the group was not immediately available for comment on Oct. 4. But on its Web site, the group said it still intended “to derail the project and prevent the destruction of Sandpoint’s waterfront.”
The group is already suing the state and federal highway agencies, and “is of course taking a hard look at challenging the corps decision to issue the permit,” the Web site said.
Sandpoint, 90 mi. northeast of Spokane, is nestled on the north shore of 37-mi.-long Lake Pend Oreille and is also home to the Schweitzer Mountain Ski area.
U.S. 95 is the main north-south highway in Idaho and is heavily used by trucks, tourists and local residents. The road cuts through the middle of Sandpoint, creating big traffic jams for much of the year through a series of 90-degree turns.
The 2.1-mi. (3.3 km) project would build a new bridge of U.S. 95 that would run straight across Sand Creek. It would follow railroad tracks along the east side of the creek to a point where it would reconnect with the existing U.S. 95/U.S. 2 highway just north of the existing bridge over Sand Creek.
Opponents have offered several alternative suggestions, including one to build a tunnel under downtown to carry traffic.
The corps received the initial permit application in May 2004, and it has been substantially revised since. The permit includes requirements for a variety of construction devices and techniques to prevent erosion into Sand Creek and Lake Pend Oreille.
State engineers began discussing relocation of the highway in the 1950s but the project has been beset by litigation and concerns over its impact on the aesthetic appeal of the community.