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You Asked: How did crashes at the Idaho 55 construction site compare to other state highways?

Improving safety on the narrow, winding stretch of Idaho 55 was a major motivation behind a multi-year project to widen the highway near Smiths Ferry, but how many crashes typically occur in the area?

Since the publication of BoiseDev’s investigation on the series of landslides at the construction site, multiple readers inquired about how many crashes typically occur in the area and how the project was selected in the first place. The over $50 million project was originally set to be completed by the end of 2022, but is now expected to finish this coming spring as ITD finalizes work to stabilize slopes in the area to close out the multi-year project. 

Crash data from the stretch of highway obtained from ITD says the stretch of Idaho 55, in the area of the construction project, had 36 crashes from 2017-2022. Of those, 22 resulted in property damage only. One crash was fatal, and another two resulted in serious injuries. The rate of crashes with deaths or resulting in serious injury was 66.8 per 100 million miles traveled. 

A photo of the newly improved road along Idaho 55. Courtesy of ITD

In comparison, ITD pulled crash data for small stretches of four other state highways with comparable conditions. A section of Idaho 26 east of Idaho Falls had a crash rate nearly double Idaho 55’s with 117.5 per 100 million miles travelled. This area had one fatal crash and five with serious injuries between 2017 and 2021. Another 26 crashes out of the 34 total incidents resulted in property damage only. 

A stretch of Idaho 12 north of Kooskia in North Central Idaho had 19 crashes in the same period, with no fatalities or serious injuries. Another stretch of the same highway near Myrtle had 23 crashes with only one serious injury and a crash rate of 26. ITD staff also pulled data for a section of Idaho 30 just east of Lava Hot Springs, which had a crash rate of 24.9 and one serious injury.

ITD spokesperson John Tomlinson told BoiseDev in a statement that the curvy stretch of Idaho 55 that was widened was especially treacherous for drivers due to the lack of a guardrail, proximity to the river, and the mountainside. Its position as one of only a few major north-south roads in the state made it a long-running target for improvements. 

“For years, ITD knew that something needed to be done to that stretch for safety,” Tomlinson’s statement said. “There was no margin for error through that curvy one-mile stretch of road, whether you were in a passenger vehicle headed up north, a pickup pulling a toy hauler for a weekend outdoor adventure, or a semi delivering goods. These important safety improvements are now completed, and we have a wider, straighter road with shoulders and guard rail along the side next to the river.”

Federal money spurred action 

Discussion on improvements to Idaho 55 stretch back over two decades. 

Tomlinson said widening Idaho 55 near Smiths Ferry was always a “dream job,” but it wasn’t financially feasible for the agency to complete without an extra leg up because of the long list of projects statewide on ITD’s to-do list. ITD got a boost to help jump-start the project in the late 1990s and early 2000s thanks to a set of federal earmarks, or provisions designating funds to specific projects in bills outside of the normal budgeting process. 

The first came in 1998 under the leadership of Senators Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne and Congressional Representatives Helen Chenoweth-Hage and Mike Crapo. This gave ITD $2.5 million ($4.4 million in today’s dollars) for Idaho 55.

Another earmark came to the project in 2005 when Craig and Senator Mike Crapo along with Simpson and then-Representative Butch Otter were representing the Gem State in Congress. This brought in $1.6 million ($2.3 million today) for the project, which was dubbed “a high priority.” 

Marissa Morrison, spokesperson for Crapo, told BoiseDev he worked to secure “critical” federal funding for transportation projects in the early 2000s. 

“I have historically supported funding for the critical needs of Idaho’s highways and roads, with the goal of ensuring safer and more efficient travel to boost Idaho’s economy,” Crapo said in a statement. “Notwithstanding needs at the time of specific funding allocations, it is still extremely important that federal tax dollars be used responsibly and efficiently, and reallocations of federal funds need to be constantly reevaluated.”

Correction: An earlier version misidentified one of Idaho’s Congressmen in 1998 due to incorrect information provided by ITD. It has been corrected to reflect that Mike Crapo was one of Idaho’s Congressional representatives in 1998.

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
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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