A road restriping project that modified intersection traffic patterns at the Ohio Gulch intersection with state Highway 75 north of Hailey last month has drawn fierce backlash from county transportation leaders and members of the public.
On Oct. 22, the Idaho Transportation Department added additional through-lanes and a center turn lane “to alleviate traffic congestion and allow more room for drivers on Ohio Gulch to safely enter [the highway],” the department said.
The department publicly announced the change six days later on Thursday, Oct. 28.
“At the request of road users and local residents, we analyzed this intersection to find a way to make it more efficient for all users,” ITD District Engineer Jesse Barrus said at the time. “This design is intended to improve the mobility, while not compromising safety, for both through traffic and those trying to access the highway.”
On Thursday, Barrus acknowledged that the traffic modification project “has not been well-received,” but told the Blaine County Regional Transportation Committee that it was necessary because the shoulder lane to the north coming out of Ohio Gulch was being used improperly as an acceleration lane.
“That was not desirable. So, we shifted the lanes over and took out the shoulder there too,” he explained to the committee. “I know people weren’t very happy about not having that opportunity to accelerate. Hopefully, we’re going to try to get some approvals to go out there and do some adjustments.”
Barrus said two new changes will include a new right-turn lane to enter Ohio Gulch from the highway and new, proper acceleration lanes flanking the intersection. ITD could guarantee those “definitely by the spring, when we when we go to repave everything,” he said, but noted that a new right-turn lane will require “some environmental action because that would involve widening the road where it wasn’t intended.”
“We’re working to expedite that and I’m pushing very hard to try to get the [right-turn lane] in the next couple of weeks so it’s there for the winter,” Barrus said. He added that repaving will be difficult, but not impossible, with the cooler temperatures.
Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary, who represents Blaine County on the transportation committee, told Barrus that she had been getting numerous emails and phone calls from constituents concerned that ITD’s removal of the turn lane and outer shoulders around the intersection will lead to more rear-end collisions.
“There are a lot of people who feel like they’ve had close calls,” McCleary said, adding that the county has been concerned over the safety of Ohio Gulch—home to the area’s waste transfer station and site of intensifying development—”for a long time.”
“This is the main access point where you have a lot of heavy-duty diesel trucks,” she said. “If there’s an accident, we’re not just talking about two cars here, but an automobile and either a large semi or garbage truck.”
Ben Varner, infrastructure and assets director at Mountain Rides, and Lynne Barker, Blaine County’s sustainability director, said that Clear Creek and Mountain Rides drivers had shared the same concerns of high-speed collisions.
Varner asked Barrus for “any communication” from ITD if striping or lane changes are going to occur.
“We were shocked and surprised about the lack of communication or any public outreach. This kind of happened overnight,” he said. “As the lane striping project was going on a few weeks ago, our bus drivers had several close calls. That’s already a high-attention area for us on a normal sunny day, much less at 6 a.m.”
Barrus said he wanted to address the issue as quickly as possible.
“I understand it’s a high speed area, and there’s some fear that that you might get run into the back of trying to turn. I don’t want people to be afraid,” he said.
“This is a huge lesson learned. Communication was really very weak on my side and that is something I am committed to changing. I think I kind of got tunnel vision on this thing, like ‘I need to get this done,’ but failed to reach out to the to the appropriate people.”
Another concern voiced on Thursday was that the old stripes had not been covered well enough by ITD crews.
“I know it’s it seems kind of abrupt right now when you make the line shift, but it will flow a lot to smoother next spring when we put in new pavement for the for the whole road,” Barrus said.
Barker then asked what it would take to get a stoplight at the intersection. Barrus said ITD has been evaluating the intersection on a yearly basis, and its environmental impact study for the area is 10 years old.
“There is there misconception that it is going to take a certain number of crashes or fatalities to get a light here. But that’s not our evaluation protocol,” Barrus said. “We look deeper at the crash history and whether a signal could have prevented that or made it less serious. And, there are eight warrants needed for a light based on traffic volumes, pedestrian volumes and proximity to railroad, and this intersection has not met any of the other [warrants].”
Barrus added: “I’m aware so many people desperately want the light, and I want people to know that we are looking at it. I’m just not sure if we’ll get construction money. There are a lot more projects than there is money.”