Community at a crossroads as bypass opening nears

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SANDPOINT — With the Sand Creek Byway set to open soon, some wary residents can’t help but feel the city is at a crossroad.

“The town seems to be right at a crucial stage,” said Peter Mico, owner of Spud’s Waterfront Grill, which now overlooks the U.S. Highway 95 rerouting project.

(Check out this YouTube link on the project):

Downtown weathered the Great Recession, but not without casualties as evidenced by vacant storefronts. It also endured four years of bypass construction.

Many are praising lead contractor Parsons RCI for working with the community to keep construction from interfering with local events and tourist draws.

Some also hold that construction actually insulated Sandpoint somewhat from the effects of the global recession.

“There were several hundred construction workers living in town and it basically gave us a small cushion so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Of all the time to build it, this was probably the best,” said Gretchen Hellar, Sandpoint’s former mayor.

But the effect of the byway continues to be a deep pool of speculation. It’s generally agreed that the project will peel tractor-trailers away from the downtown core, although some are concerned would-be consumers will be drawn away as well.

“The bypass is going to take X percent of the traffic out including trucks — which is great — but it’s bound to take some car traffic out as well,” said Mico.

There are also worries that the project’s design is already obsolete and might not be able to make a dent in the formidable crush of traffic that converges on the city.

One downtown business owner, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, is “hoping and praying” the bypass will ease congestion in Sandpoint.

“But I still remember all the stats that say it’s not going to take the traffic off the streets that one would expect,” the merchant said.

There are some areas of agreement between project critics and supporters. The bypass project looks better than some anticipated it would and Parsons did a good job.

“They did an amazing job,” said Mico.

“The project, to me, was so organized. It was neat. They had stuff stacked up and there was no slop anywhere.”

Mico, however, does not agree with the realignment of the creek and the removal of trees frequented by bald eagles and osprey. The new highway also mutes the views of passing locomotives.

“The trains are kind of a little more away from me now. To be honest, it was almost like ‘Petticoat Junction’ here for a while,” said Mico.

“Now it’s kind of more industrial out there and things are moving quickly through there.”

On a good-for-Sandpoint scale of 10, Hellar rates the project as an 8 1/2.

“If you’d asked me this six years ago, I would have said it was a 2,” said Hellar.

Although the look of the project is a pleasant surprise to some, others contend it has irrevocably blighted the waterfront.

The former executive director of the North Idaho Community Action Network, which doggedly challenged the project for years to protect the city’s waterfront, said the elevated highway is not only ugly, but problematic as well.

The Idaho Transportation Department initially threw cold water on claims that the project was sinking, but admitted earlier this spring that the project is indeed sinking.

“ITD seems surprised that the soft, gooey, basically bottomless sandy soils on which it is perched can’t support all that weight,” said Liz Sedler, NICAN’s former director.

Sedler said when pre-construction studies were completed by Idaho Transportation Department’s hired engineers tweaked the stability study to conclude that the embankments would not sink if wick drains and other special engineering features were installed.

NICAN commissioned an engineering study in 2004 to assess the instability potential and it determined that sinking was inevitable and it would be a permanent problem.

“The question is how much added expense will this engineering snafu add to the cost of maintaining structure over time?” said Sedler.

Sedler said the bypass underscores the department’s inability to engineer and construct highway projects without screwing them up. Past projects resulted in bulldozers sliding into Lake Coeur d’Alene, state water quality violations and massive mudslides on the North Hill outside of Bonners Ferry.

Hellar admits she would have preferred to protect the waterfront, but is glad a through-town couplet or west-side bypass didn’t come to fruition.

“By putting it on the waterfront — which I wish there was an alternative to — at least they’re going to see the town and if the merchants and the property owners in the city do the right things we can really make that view that they get of Sandpoint from the bypass really attractive,” said Hellar.

Mico is one of the business owners who’s attempting to do that. He’s tweaked the name of his business by swapping out rotisserie with waterfront and is expanding its covered outdoor seating area.

“We’re looking at our strengths,” he said.

Still, there is concern that the project will make it easier for motorists to bypass Sandpoint and spend their money in Ponderay.

“The two things we hung our hat on as we fought the bypass — don’t affect the character and vitality of our town,” said Mico.

Mico said those two qualities remain at risk and he admits he doesn’t know how it will play out. Cohesion among downtown businesses, however, is essential, he added.

“It’s kind of complex in a way. But in the end it’s very simple — you’ve got to adapt and, most importantly, we need to pull together,” said Mico.

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