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Top ITD official skeptical of unconventional intersection on Eagle Road before public input poured in

Construction was already underway at the intersection of Eagle Road and Highway 44 when the Idaho Department of Transportation shifted gears.

Heading into 2021, ITD planned to carry out its vision to rebuild the high-volume intersection with a design that would have been the first of its kind in Idaho. The state’s transportation agency had been planning since November 2018 to construct a displaced left turn – or half-CFI – intersection in the area. The design would move left-turning traffic to the “wrong” side of the road to allow traffic to continue to flow freely. It’s a new style of traffic flow gaining popularity at busy intersections and highway interchanges across the country.

[With a nudge, ITD considers leaving Boise campus, with redevelopment possible]

The public announcement of the new intersection in February prompted reams of negative social media comments and dozens of emails into the agency decrying the choice. Merely weeks later, the agency announced it would revert back to a widened traditional intersection instead, but the project stayed on time, under budget, and is set for completion this month.

ITD spokesman Vince Trimboli said no matter how quickly the intersection was redesigned after years of planning, it is a “good story” for residents of Eagle, Star, and Boise who regularly travel through the area.

“It’s a widened traditional signalized intersection that will improve mobility and improve safety through the Eagle Road and State Street area,” Trimboli said. “That was the goal of this project no matter the intersection type the entire time. The folks have been patient because they’ve wanted an upgrade for this intersection for a long, long time and they’re finally going to reap the benefits starting in early October.”

BoiseDev took a deep dive into public records to learn the details of how the state changed course so quickly after years of planning, the costs of the redesign and how it ultimately got paid for.

ITD COO raised questions in early 2021

Even though the new design wasn’t popular with a lot of residents, a top official started questioning the years of planning for the intersection before it went public.

On February 2, ITD’s Chief Operations Officer Dan McElhinney sent an email to ITD’s District 3 Administrator Caleb Lakey asking for more background on the plans for the design, according to a cache of hundreds of emails obtained by BoiseDev through a public records request. Lakey wrote back noting ITD plans several other similar style intersections on Chinden and State Street because they are “good high volume intersections” and are favorable with the bicycle and pedestrian community. McElhinney called the plan “unique”, asked some questions, and set up a briefing on it.

Meanwhile, the agency rolled out a public announcement about the project in mid-February, garnering largely negative feedback about the idea.

On February 26th, McElhinney sent an email to several staff members saying he thought the increased traffic capacity for the displaced left-turn intersection didn’t outweigh the confusion for drivers, conflicts with longer crosswalks, and “community acceptance” on a long-term basis. He requested staff bring back information for an alternative intersection design and staff worked through the weekend to get the information together for the change.

Staff continued to plan for a traditional intersection design through early March and asked outside consultant Quincy Engineering to prepare a report evaluating the project and ultimately recommended the widened traditional intersection design instead of the original displaced left turn style project. This report cost $32,000, which is on top of the $847,000 for Horrocks Engineering to design the intersection the first time and the $670,000 for them to redesign it.

On March 9, the agency told BoiseDev they were reconsidering the project and twelve days later the final decision was made to scrap the displaced left-turn altogether. Construction on the main components of the intersection began soon after.

Quick change meant no more federal support

This quick turnaround changed the funding for the project, though.

The original plan was to use funds from the Federal Highway Administration to pay for the $9.7 million intersection rebuild. But, the agency had to scrap that funding and use state dollars for the project instead due to some of the strings attached to the money by the federal government.

Emails from mid-March obtained by BoiseDev show that FWHA staff wanted ITD to jump through several hoops to still use federal funding for the new design, like a National Environmental Policy Act study, additional air quality testing and a noise analysis. After viewing an email where FHWA engineer Kyle Horman held fast to the requirements, McElhinney said ITD is “approaching the time when we switch funding sources” so the contractor did not have to be put on standby.

Blake Rindlisbacher, ITD’s Engineering Services Division administrator, told McElhinney he estimates that these additional requirements would add several weeks to the construction process.

“A delay in construction progress at this time will ultimately delay the construction schedule and could potentially jeopardize completion of the project this construction season,” he wrote to McElhinney the day before officials made the decision to switch funding sources.

The money wasn’t lost though. According to Trimboli, the funds that would have gone to the Eagle Road and State Highway 44 project went back into the pool of money ITD has every year for projects from the federal government. An email reviewed by BoiseDev showed Horman suggested ITD use federal funds for an upcoming project in downtown Homedale, but the department did not take the FHWA up on the idea Trimboli said.

ITD did not award any damages to contractor Knife River over the last-minute changes on the project, according to emails reviewed by BoiseDev.

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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