Idaho’s Highway 95 expansion near Moscow faces opposition from environmental group

Highway and environmental safety clash as the construction project prepares to break ground

By: - June 29, 2022 4:30 am

Traffic bottlenecks from four lanes to two south of Moscow on Highway 95 near mile marker 337. (Anteia McCollum/Idaho Capital Sun)

The Idaho Transportation Department is moving forward with construction south of Moscow that will expand Highway 95 and create a safer route for drivers, the department said. Drivers can expect to begin using the highway in October 2024, according to ITD.

The project has been long in the making, with original plans beginning in 1999 and multiple setbacks due to challenges from the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition over what it says are negative environmental impacts on local ecosystems.

Safety concerns about Highway 95

There are an outsized number of car crashes on the road, which has numerous safety concerns, according to the Idaho Transportation Department.

The project’s final environmental impact statement says the stretch of Highway 95 between Thorn Creek Road, north of Gennesee, and Moscow contained three of the top 13 accident locations statewide between 2003 and 2012. It had an average of over 25 crashes annually during those years, with five total fatal crashes and 96 total injury crashes.

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Between 2012 and 2021, there were 172 crashes along the stretch of highway between Thorn Creek Road and Moscow, or an average of about 17 crashes annually, ITD public information officer Megan Jahns said. In that time, three of the crashes were fatal and 65 resulted in serious injuries, minor injuries or suspected injuries.

The number of sharp curves and steep grades that do not meet American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials standards were factored into the safety concerns ITD has about the highway.

Approaches to the highway — which include private driveways, country roads and more — do not meet ITD Access Control Policy standards because of spacing, sight distance and the grade of the approaches. Other safety concerns from ITD included the pavement quality, highway capacity and road width.

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Lawsuits from the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition

The Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition is a group of environmental advocacy organizations such as the Palouse Group of the Sierra Club, Palouse Broadband of Great Old Broads for Wilderness and Wild Idaho Rising Tide that aim to protect the environmental integrity, safety and aesthetic of Paradise Ridge.

In March, the coalition filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, claiming the corps wrongfully granted a Clean Water Act permit to ITD. It is the fourth time the coalition has sued over the project.

South of Moscow where Highway 95 narrows from four lanes to two with no meridian at mile marker 337. (Anteia McCollum, Idaho Capital Sun)

The Corps of Engineers granted ITD Nationwide Permit No. 14, which allows ITD to bring in up to a half acre of fill material for construction, but the coalition says more than a half acre of wetlands will need to be filled in.

In 2017, a legal complaint was submitted by the coalition against the Federal Highway Administration and ITD concerning the Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision. The group said the route chosen was the most environmentally damaging route. After the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho ruled in favor of ITD, the coalition appealed unsuccessfully.

During a March 2016 meeting, project manager Ken Helm said the eastern route was chosen after 12 years of environmental review of three proposals. The review was part of the environmental impact statement the state was forced to complete as a result of the coalition winning a federal injunction in 2003.

Rerouted power lines and tree removals can be seen along Highway 95 just south of Moscow. (Anteia McCollum, Idaho Capital Sun)

According to Jahns, the eastern route was chosen because it is the safest and quickest route for drivers despite the coalition’s environmental concerns.

“It best met the purpose of the project, which was to increase safety and capacity,” Jahns said. “The benefits in regards to safety and travel time were only modeled for 20 years, but the highway will likely be in place much longer than that, with apparent minute differences between alternatives compounded over time. Differences between alternatives add up, and E-2 saves the most lives and the most time for drivers.”

Environmental concerns for Paradise Ridge after construction

Native Palouse prairie, big game habitat and wetlands near Paradise Ridge, southeast of Moscow, are all at risk of being destroyed after the construction of the eastern route chosen for the Highway 95 extension, according to the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition.

Steve Flint, a member of the coalition’s board, said the new highway poses a threat to an area of native Palouse prairie vegetation because it will spread weeds and other invasive plants.

Paradise Ridge, southeast of Moscow, is home to stands of native Palouse vegetation, coniferous forests, wetlands, big game and more. The new route planned for Highway 95 will pass close to the ridge. (Anteia McCollum, Idaho Capital Sun)

In the final environmental impact statement from ITD, Citizens for a Safe Highway 95, who represent people who own 80% of the land along the proposed eastern route, said they were in favor of the eastern route because it would provide a “spectacular view” of the Palouse and could be a beautiful gateway to Moscow.

Big game crossings on the highway were also an environmental concern for the coalition, according to Flint, as well as a safety concern.

“The top of the ridge is, in many places, forested and that’s where the big game spends time under cover, but then they come down crossing the proposed highway route to get to water,” Flint said. “And that was never taken into account.”

Jahns said that ITD did factor the big game and their habitat into their plans. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game identified four crossings for big game along the eastern route “but noted that the frequency of wildlife strikes was much less than many other sections of US-95 and other highways,” Jahns said.

The recent lawsuit from the coalition against the Army Corps of Engineers claims that ITD did not evaluate the wetlands correctly and that the permit to fill them was wrongly granted. Flint said the coalition’s goal with the lawsuit is for the corps to revoke the permit and have ITD pursue a different permit — one that requires a comparison of alternatives.

Flint said another concern was the weather during the winter months, where high winds and elevation might make driving on the eastern route more difficult than other routes.

“All of us that have lived in Moscow for any length of time know that it just takes a little bit of change in elevation for there to be a big difference in winter,” Flint said. “You can be in town, and it’ll rain. Then you take any route that goes up 100 or 200 feet, and there’s a big change in the amount of snow.”

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Anteia Elswick
Anteia Elswick

Anteia McCollum is an intern with the Idaho Capital Sun. She will graduate from a the University of Idaho with a journalism degree in December. She has served as a columnist, reporter, photographer, graphic designer and editor during her time at The Argonaut, the UI student newspaper. She also freelances with Project FARE, a nonprofit focused on telling Idaho's food stories. In 2017, she joined the Idaho Army National Guard as a combat engineer and will complete her contract in December 2023. She's an avid outdoor enthusiast with an interest in environmental reporting as a lifelong career. Her hobbies collide with her line of work, including reading, photography, design and some outside activities like backpacking and wandering around the local farmers market.

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