Thursday, October 21, 2021

Rathdrum traffic jams: If you can't beat 'em, move 'em

Staff Writer | August 11, 2021 1:09 AM

RATHDRUM — Traffic through Rathdrum is climbing, and without any future improvement plans, officials are taking a different approach — directing drivers away from the city center. 

Growth on the Rathdrum Prairie and within the Highway 41 corridor is projected to increase traffic volumes 64% by 2035, According to the Kootenai Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Despite this, no projects have been planned within the city to accommodate impending transportation demands, Rathdrum City Administrator Leon Duce said. 

Instead, Duce said, officials are looking at diverting through-traffic away from the area through added road signs on Highway 41. 

"We're going to try and encourage a lot of people to turn off on Lancaster so that they can get where they need to go without affecting traffic," Duce said. "Other routes exist. People just don't know about them."  

There are arguably three main congestion areas in Rathdrum: Highway 41, Highway 53 and the BNSF rail tracks. By taking a beeline on Lancaster, drivers can reach U.S. 95 and connect to Highway 53 through Greensferry Road — avoiding all three obstacles, Duce said.

"A lot of the traffic coming through Rathdrum is not necessarily Rathdrum traffic, but traffic from the two highways that go right through town," Duce said. 

Many drivers face all three congested areas when traveling through Rathdrum by heading north on Highway 41 and crossing the tracks at Mill Street to connect to Highway 53. 

On paper, it sounds quick and easy, but the frequency of trains — as Rathdrum residents know all too well — can contribute tremendously to commute times. 

"Trains come through here regularly," Duce said. "Probably two to three trains per hour." 

The BNSF railroad cuts right through Mill Street to the refueling station a couple of miles west. When the rail crossing signal is activated, Duce estimates two cars could fit across the divide and connect to Highway 53 — which has caused safety concerns for travelers. 

"A lot of accidents happen when people are not paying attention or get backed up on the tracks," he said. "Probably four years ago, a camper on the back of a truck stopped, and the trailer was on the edge of the tracks. A train came by and took off the back of the trailer." 

Idaho Transportation Department and Rathdrum officials discussed possible projects nearly two decades ago to diminish railroad impacts at Mill Street, ITD spokeswoman Megan Jahns said. The concept was part of the "Bridging the Valley" initiative — a multiagency effort in the early 2000s to eliminate all at-grade crossings from Spokane to Athol.

At-grade crossings are railroads and highways running at the same ground level, said Kootenai Metropolitan Planning Organization Executive Director Glenn Miles.

"Agencies like removing at-grade railroad crossings. The chance of trains hitting someone, which is a pretty traumatic event, decreases substantially," Miles said. "It takes about 2 miles for someone driving a train to stop, and on that stretch of highway, they are probably doing 40 or 50 miles per hour. It's not easy to stop a train when someone jumps the tracks." 

As part of the "Bridging the Valley" initiative, Jahns said Mill Street would have closed and a new underpass near Latah Street would have connected the north and south sides of Rathdrum. 

However, the project never came to fruition. Duce said the project failed because of environmental and financial issues. 

"The city back then decided it wasn't feasible to do the project," Duce said. "At the same time, plans to put an overpass over the railroad tracks by Lakeland High School were considered and done instead." 

Today, that overpass exists at the intersection of two highways — 41 and 53 — and is "a major point of traffic" in Rathdrum, Duce said. 

Jahns said several projects are planned to improve 53, including one scheduled to begin next year to expand the highway to three lanes and add a center turn lane.

The ITD Pleasant View Interchange project, scheduled in 2026, will eliminate railroad lines at Prairie Avenue, Pleasant View, McGuire and Beck roads.

Closing the access roads is expected to push traffic onto Pleasant View, but the interchange will support a greater capacity and not impact public, business or emergency vehicles. 

"(Emergency services) don't want to be heading down McGuire Road on an emergency run to find out the train just closed the gates and they can't get through," Miles said. "Then they have to reroute, and that causes delays. They like guaranteed routes."


Eight cars lined up waiting for a BNSF train to pass on Mill Street through downtown Rathdrum Tuesday afternoon. After six minutes and dozens of cars flew by, the signals lifted, allowing traffic to continue. (MADISON HARDY/Press)