‘Planning is in the rearview mirror’

Citizens discuss ideas to mitigate traffic congestion on state highways in Payette during a town hall meeting at the Payette County Courthouse on Tuesday evening.

PAYETTE — Does the greater Payette community see an increase in traffic and congestion?

“Yes,” came the resounding reply to the question asked by Payette Mayor Jeff Williams at the top of a town hall meeting on Tuesday night.

About 20 citizens attended the meeting at the Payette County Courthouse to discuss and listen to ideas on how to overcome traffic congestion on local highways, specifically Highway 95 and 52, which are controlled by the state of Idaho. Payette City Councilor Craig Jensen moderated the meeting, and sat at the front of the room with Williams and and Idaho Transportation District 3 employees Jayme Coonce, engineering manager, and Phoebe Wallace, community outreach coordinator.

ITD District 3 encompasses 10 southwestern Idaho counties, including Payette and Washington counties. The city subcommittee members include city councilors Mike Kee and Lori Steiniker, as well as Jamie Couch, Payette street supervisor and two members of the city clerk’s office.

‘Congestion along the highway every day’

Audience members indicated traffic congestion has become an issue of safety concern and frustration. Suggestions for relief were numerous, some of which included adding more lanes to Highway 95 in Payette’s city corridor, similar to Weiser’s layout; adding more lanes on the rural stretch of the road between Payette and Weiser; swapping out the traffic light for a roundabout at the south Y in town; traffic lights, turn lanes or passing lanes to slow down or improve the flow of traffic coming into town from the north; limiting access to side streets; and, even, creating a different route into Ontario from Highway 52 by adding a Y that output motorists closer to Love’s Travel Stop in Ontario.

A citizen who said he lived near Highway 95 and Center Avenue, said there is “congestion along the highway every day.” He asked Coonce and Wallace whether anything was available regarding timing traffic lights on Highway 95 that would give people on the side streets a better chance of going straight across the highway, adding that it was particularly problematic to do so during peak traffic times, including on the weekends.

At one citizens suggestion of adding traffic lights in areas where it is difficult to stretch, Coonce explained that adding traffic signals is not just as simple as coming up with funds to install one.

She said in order to install a traffic signal anywhere in the United States, it has to meet national criteria, which is done through applying for a warrant, which takes into consideration such details as pedestrian traffic and volume of motorists.

“Legally, we can’t install [a signal] unless it’s warranted,” Coonce said.

Another concern cited was motorists coming from the north on Highway 95, and sustaining speeds of 55 miles per hour all the way into 35 mph zones near Seventh Avenue North. Short of enforcing the speed limit by law enforcement, some wondered whether the lower speed limit could be pushed further out of city limits, thereby hoping to see motorists come into city limits at a lower speed.

However, Wallace said that don’t have the ability to change the speed limit without a traffic study, and such a study could result in the opposite of what they wanted.

“If it [presented] a pattern of traffic speeding, it might show the need for a higher speed, and you might not get the answer you are looking for,” she said, emphasizing that sometimes studies can “distort” needs, as they look at the 85th percentile for making adjustments.

At the suggestion of limiting access to side streets, Wallace also said that is not likely something ITD would consider.

‘There’s a lot of pressure’

“The planning is in the rearview mirror, especially with the growth coming,” said a citizen in the front row who did not identify himself.

He later talked about the number of new building permits, adding that it indicated growth that will create more traffic.

“There’s a lot of pressure, and it’s not going to stop,” the unidentified citizen said.

Payette County Commissioner Reece Hrizuk, who attended the meeting, was among those in favor of adding more lanes, specifically to Highway 95. As to widening roads, which in any of several ways, such as adding one or two lanes, there is also a lack of state funding available for that. Coonce explained that ITD gets $80 million per year to do any widening projects in the state.

However, that has to be split up between the state’s six districts, and sometimes large urban projects will chew away big chunks of that funding. An example she gave was the recent widening of Karcher Boulevard in Nampa. That project cost $30 million, she said, adding that it didn’t leave enough of a volume of funds for projects.

The best-case scenario to get work done in the near future may be some kind of way to lower the cost ratio for the state, by means of a major donation or grant. As it sits right now, work is allocated through 2028 closes this fall, and any new projects which might see fruition in 2029 must be applied for in October.

What’s next

In a follow-up phone interview this morning, Williams said he and Jensen visited with the ITD officials after the meeting to discuss what would need to be done next to “get their attention.”

He said his opinion at this point is the get the subcommittee to make recommendations to the city council regarding widening lanes and a roundabout. From there, they would make a plea to ITD about being considered for congestion concerns.

The ideas they will focus on, he believes, are the proposed roundabout at the south Y, four lanes of traffic from there to the north end of Payette — and maybe even five lanes if a turn lane could be included; and how to get the speed down on Highway 52 between Third Avenue North and Seventh Avenue North, coming off the overpass and going north onto Sixth Street where there is an elementary school zone.

“We need to get something to slow down,” he said.

And he doesn’t believe it will happen solely with funding from ITD, and isn’t sure the American Rescue Dollars from the federal COVID-19 relief package would even fit to be used for those projects.

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