BONNERS FERRY — A potentially lethal hazard lurks on a wide sweeping corner of U.S. 95, something that was set in motion during the spring mudslides of 2017, and since has continued to grow and evolve into a larger threat to the people traveling that stretch of highway.
The slide that occurred in the Rock Creek area, north of Bonners Ferry around mile marker 518, was deceptive, and overshadowed by the large slide that happened around the same time in the Naples area of Highway 95.
“When it first fell, the extent of the slide was not readily apparent due to the trees and brush at the bottom of the slope,” said Megan Sausser, Idaho Transportation Department public information specialist. “As the area was studied and permanent repairs designed, conditions actually became worse.”
Unlike the Naples slide, this one is not covering the roadway — rather it is undercutting the highway, forcing the road to narrow significantly, and causing a dogleg to the once gradual, sweeping curve. It has been catching drivers unaware who do not heed the 35 mile per hour warning signs. This has caused northbound drivers, on the inside of the curve, to sometimes swerve or drift into the southbound lane.
“We are going to have a head-on collision,” said Bonners Ferry Police Chief Brian Zimmerman, who lives north of the slide and commutes through the area on a regular basis. “I worked here as a trooper for 17 years and that scares me.“
Zimmerman spoke with District 1 ITD Shed Foreman, George Shutes, who immediately responded by putting out orange traffic barrels along the centerline in the slide area.
“That, I am convinced, saved lives this year,” said Zimmerman. “There is absolutely no question.”
In addition, according to Sausser, the maintenance foreman added a concrete barrier, widened the other shoulder, shifted traffic and delineated the new centerline with the orange barrels, all following the April 2017 slide.
“An advisory speed limit of 35 mph was put in place, and the department recently restriped the road and added linear delineators to the concrete barrier to better indicate the travel lanes for drivers,” said Sausser.
However, the problem persists, and barrels are being struck or sideswiped on a regular basis.
“Barrels were hit almost daily,” said Zimmerman, who has reset them many times. “Some clear over into the creek, some up on the bank. You don’t hit the barrel and knock it off the highway without encroaching on someone else’s lane.”
Zimmerman also pointed out that many drivers do not choose to head the 35 mph warning signs. According to Sausser, in response to the situation, Idaho Transportation Department plans to put up a regulatory 45 mph zone in the next week or so.
The mild winter was likely one reason why there were no serious accidents in the area, according to Zimmerman, but he also attributes some of it to the local ITD team.
“The highway department, George’s crew here, did a phenomenal job of laying salt down there, heavy all the time, to try to keep it cleaned off,” said Zimmerman. “His crew has done a phenomenal job in doing what they can to mitigate liability on this corner. That was a high priority for them and they did a great job.”
With good weather, there appears to be a lessening of the problem, but Zimmerman is still concerned about the upcoming winter if it is not fixed in time.
“If we have a bad winter, I guarantee you, from my experience of three and a half decades of law enforcement and working this area, and that hill … we are going to kill somebody on that corner because they have not moved fast enough to get that fixed,” said Zimmerman.
According to Sausser, slide repairs can be tricky. She explained that a geotechnical investigation helped the department develop the plans and to understand why the hillside was moving, and to what extent.
“ITD is preparing to put the repairs out to bid, and they will include repaving the road, removing failed material and placing rock, as well as installing drains and a grid to reinforce the slope,” said Sausser. “Depending on the bidding process, repairs could be constructed this fall.”
According to Sausser, the availability of contractors will influence the timing of repairs. In the meantime, the area remains a potential hazard for drivers caught unaware or not heeding the safety signs and devices set into place by ITD.
“The frustration, countywide and for people traveling through, is how long it takes for some of these projects to get resolved and completed,” said Boundary County Sheriff Dave Kramer.
Kramer pointed out that the heavy amount of traffic that travels through the area on a regular basis, making it a potential hazard, but one that has not yet seen an accident.
“It is a horrible hazard and it is just a matter of time before somebody is seriously injured or killed,” said Zimmerman. “My concern, because of my experience in law enforcement, and the hundreds of crashes that I have investigated and fatalities across the state, that is just a matter of time.”
ITD recently published information and photos on their website to inform people about the project and keep them up to date. For more information, visit: itdprojects.org/projects/us95rockcreek