For some, the road serves as a suburban route to shopping and dining, but for others it can be a high-speed highway up to the mountains.
EAGLE, Idaho — This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press.
Eagle Road is having an identity crisis. Following the death of a young woman in 2021, Meridian city officials have been pushing the Idaho Transportation Department to lower the speed limit, which can be up to 55 mph.
Meridian officials have said they don’t believe there’s an acceptable number of crashes and deaths that “warrants keeping the status quo,” and that the community sees a problem with the road.
“No other city in the Treasure Valley or the state, as far as I’m aware has a state highway running through a central business section of its community operating at 55 mph,” Mayor Robert Simison said in his state of the city address in 2022. He said the highway slows down in other cities.
“Why must this road be driven at 55 mph in Meridian, when it has the busiest intersections in the state with the highest traffic volume? … Now is the time to make safety improvements,” Simison said to applause.
The Idaho Transportation Department says speed is not the issue in many crashes — distracted drivers are. It has offered other options besides a lower speed limit, like safe speed warnings and signs that show driver speed, which Meridian city councilmembers blasted at a meeting in early September.
“I’ve never seen someone work so hard to leave the speed limit the way it is,” Simison said at the time.
Now, the department is working with Meridian, Boise, the Idaho State Police and others on options like variable speed zones during rush hour and banning unprotected left turns.
Unprotected left turns (made without a green arrow or stopped oncoming traffic) are risky. In fact, the woman who died in 2021 was the passenger in a car when the driver made an unprotected left turn.
The question remains — are Eagle Road’s dangers inherent in driving or is there more that can be done to improve safety?
The Meridian Police Department said that speed is arguably a factor in every crash. The faster the speed, often the more severe a crash. Drivers also have to contend with the physics of the world.
Force is mass times acceleration. When cars crash into each other, they come to a stop, abruptly and sometimes almost instantly. The rapid deceleration means a lot of force.
The faster a car is going, the longer it has to go before its speed hits zero. At the same time, over 55,000 cars travel Eagle Road every day. Data provided by ITD showed no fatalities on a six-mile stretch of the road last year out of 278 crashes.
On six-mile stretches last year, Fairview had 240 crashes and Overland had 181 — none fatal. State Street reported 224 crashes last year over around nine miles. And Chinden, over 13 miles, had 201 crashes — two of which were fatal.
“It’s as safe as any road is and there’s inherent hazards with any particular road,” said Matt Stoll, executive director of the community planning association of southwest Idaho. “As you have more volume and if you have unprotected left turns, you’re increasing the risk on it.”
So, should the speed limit of Eagle Road be lowered?
Kess Boesch was not the first person to die on Eagle Road when the car she was in was struck in 2021. In fact, accidents and congestion in the 1990s spurred the addition of traffic lights at the intersections of Eagle and McMillan roads as well as Eagle and Ustick.
After her death, Boesch’s family has pushed for things to change. Simison, Meridian’s mayor, questioned Eagle Road’s speed limit in the 2022 state of the city speech, around seven months after she died.
“We believe that a safer corridor includes lower speed limits,” Meridian Chief of Staff Dave Miles said this month. “It’s been frustrating that no action has been made around speed limits … we would like to have seen changes already.”
ITD’s data shows four fatalities on Eagle Road from 2017 to 2021, one per year on a road that moves over 57,000 cars per day. There were over 2,000 crashes during that same time period.
“I think Eagle Road is safe,” ITD Public Information Officer Sophia Miraglio said. “Distracted drivers make it unsafe.”
The Idaho Transportation Department conducted a speed study and concluded that the 85th percentile speeds they saw were below the posted speed limits. ITD said this confirmed the posted speed. In September, transportation officials also said that speed limits cannot be set arbitrarily.
But the department’s position has put it at odds with Meridian. In public meetings and in emails obtained via a records request, officials expressed their frustration.
In November 2022, Miles wrote to ITD that the city was looking for implementation recommendations by March 2023, including speed reductions.
The next month, ITD District 3 Administrator Caleb Lakey wrote that the department wouldn’t commit to an implementation plan when “we haven’t even agreed there is a problem.”
By March, ITD had compiled lots of data.
“Not to pop the balloon, but from a first glance we don’t have any smoking guns. Speeds in general are between 45-60 mph, slower during commute, of course some outliers,” Lakey wrote. “Crash data doesn’t show anything new … signs appear adequate.”
Miles wrote back pushing for lowered speed limits. Because roads were slower during rush hour, he said, that meant that lower speeds could be accommodated.
In July, Miles wrote that ITD’s proposals did not go far enough. Meridian’s mayor requested a meeting with ITD as to why the speed limits couldn’t be lowered.
ITD ultimately presented their plan to a disapproving council on Sept. 5. Since then, some residents have reached out to the city to share their views.
But there’s no clear consensus. Everyone seems to have an opinion on Eagle Road.
Some who complained thought speeds now are too high for conditions and others thought a lower speed limit wouldn’t solve the problem of T-bone crashes.
One person wrote in asking the council to stop trying to lower the speed limit, saying that lower speeds would mean more cars and slower transit time. This email prompted a response from former police officer and current City Councilmember John Overton.
“Actually, the most time a reduction in speed limits from 55 to 45 will cause drivers is less than a minute and a half,” Overton wrote. “Thank you for your email, but based upon my previous career and training, I have to disagree with your statements.”
Cars as far as the eye can see, a newspaper reported. Tens of thousands of cars passing through Eagle Road and State Street. This isn’t a headline from Monday. It’s from a 1995 Idaho Statesman article.
In the 1980s, Meridian’s mayor and city council fought for an Eagle Road interchange off Interstate 84. Some opposed it, like the city of Eagle and some Meridian residents, or wanted it to go somewhere else. Then-state Sen. Jim Risch advocated for an interchange at Cloverdale, according to Idaho Statesman archives.
But ultimately, construction began in July 1989 on a project with a freeway interchange and widening a section of the road from two to five lanes. Traffic surged almost immediately, according to the archives. Eagle Road became Highway 55.
“The original plan back in the ‘80s…was to have it be a limited arterial expressway,” Stoll, the planning association director, said. “The State Transportation Department … designed it according to rural standards … I think if we all had the crystal ball where we could go back it would have been designed very much differently.”
However, ITD said there are lots of anecdotes and urban myths about Eagle Road, but there is no evidence there was ever a formal study or consideration of the road as an expressway.
One thing is clear: As development occurred over time, its use changed, planning officials said. And the more access, the less efficient the road is. Ada County paramedics even have issues sometimes accessing St. Luke’s because of congestion, according to the county.
The bright spot in all this: Eagle Road is consistently congested, planning association data shows. In other words, it pretty much takes the same amount of time to get down Eagle Road each day.
“You’re not going to get rid of all congestion. That’s just not the real world,” said Hunter Mulhall, community planning association of southwest Idaho principal planner. “It still is a very efficient and effective north-south connection.”
But things have definitely changed.
Lt. Brandon Frasier has been with Meridian Police for 17 years. When he started, the Village at Meridian didn’t exist. “It’s just all nonstop everything now,” Frasier said. “It’s nonstop growth.”
Frasier said the police department has worked with ITD and the Ada County Highway District to address safety issues.
Traffic officers go to a lot of crashes on Eagle Road, he said. Officers write a lot of registration violations as a warning, but the most common moving violation is cell-phone usage, he said.
It can also be difficult to do traffic enforcement on Eagle Road, he said, because it is so congested and there isn’t really a shoulder in some places. However, officers do spend a lot of time working Eagle Road — mainly by working specific intersections for a specific problem as a team.
“On Eagle Road, you really don’t see speeding tickets, because the speed limit is so high, not that you can go that fast anyway,” Frasier added.
Frasier said the frequency of injury crashes has lowered, but there’s still a “big propensity … despite all those safety measures,” to have injury or fatality crashes. And bigger modern vehicles can mean very serious injury crashes.
He said there’s a disproportionate number of crashes on Eagle Road where one car is completely stopped in traffic and is rear-ended by a car coming along behind them. These tend to happen when the road is starting to congest or decongest.
But when reporting crashes, officers report the top reason why it happened. For example, he said, a person could have been following too closely. However, if that person was driving slower, they would have more reaction time and could have stopped at a shorter distance, he said.
“Everything’s going to be inherently safer if you’re in a vehicle or around vehicles that are traveling 40 versus 50,” Frasier said. “…But the overarching question is: Should we really have this many crashes on Eagle road?”
Ultimately, there’s a balance between moving people through the area and safety, according to police and planning officials. There’s no single silver bullet that will make driving 2,000 pounds of metal completely safe.
The goal is to layer safety approaches. The speed limit is one tool. Design, education, behavioral campaigns, vehicle safety features and law enforcement are also part of safety.
“I am not sure what just lowering the speed limit is going to do to maximize safety,” Stoll, from the planning association, said.
The speed limit is already self-regulating by the amount of traffic, planning officials said.
And highway 16 is under construction as another north-south corridor — as a limited expressway.
“That should in theory alleviate part of that traffic or congestion that we’re having,” Stoll said.
In the meantime, local agencies are working together to come to an agreement.
Miles, the Meridian chief of staff, said that the road would be safer with a lower speed limit. He said traffic signal timing could be timed based on the speed of the road (ACHD has been working on measuring signal efficiency for years — a report is expected in a few months).
Miraglio, with the transportation department, said Eagle Road is operating as it is supposed to.
In the end, none of this matters if ITD doesn’t decide to lower speed limits. Planning officials said a legislative priority is changing the law to give cities more control over the highways that run through them, but for now it’s not up to Meridian.
“Anything is possible,” Miraglio said. “No decisions have been made.”
This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press, read more on IdahoPress.com.
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