The city of Island Park, just minutes from Yellowstone National Park, has seen an interesting coalition form around wildlife advocacy: environmentalists and the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD).
Winding its way through Island Park is US Highway 20, which is on the department’s shortlist for an update—widening portions of the roadway, realigning intersections and other safety improvements. However, the portion of this project that has piqued the interest of environmentalists is a series of up to 14 wildlife-dedicated overpasses.
ITD has identified eight unique segments as wildlife hotspots along a roughly 50 mile stretch of highway ranging from Falls River up to the Montana border.
The construction cost for wildlife protection on all eight segments is estimated to be $30 million to $50 million.
For just one of these eight segments, Targhee Pass, the final four miles of the highway leading up to the Montana state line, ITD has recommended a solution that includes three wildlife-crossing structures, and fencing along both sides of the highway for the entire length. Each overpass is expected to cost up to $3 million, each mile of fence is estimated to cost $100,000. Escape ramps, motion stimulated signs, reader boards and cattle guards would add an additional $1 million, bringing the total for these four miles over $10 million.
The steep price tag for this project in Targhee Pass might be bearable if it were making the area substantially safer or saving lives, but, by the department’s own statistics, it is only doing so marginally. On average, for the past decade, there has hardly been more than one animal death per year on this segment nor a single recorded injury for motorists between 2010 and 2014.
Even at these costs, many proponents argue that this will save Idaho money in the long run. Anytime an animal is hurt, there is lost revenue to tourism, to hunters, and property damage to vehicles and the roadway. Preventing these losses might offset the costs of construction.
However, the estimated savings over time will only have a marginal impact at defraying the costs. Through ITD’s own calculations, only one of the eight segments will pay for itself in the long term of 50-75 years. It is impossible to justify the enormous expense because over 10 years from 2005-2014, only 146 animals were reported as killed on these roadways.
No doubt, the US 20 Corridor has a slew of major safety concerns—speeding motorists, single lane portions, tight bends and hazardous intersections, to name a few—but wildlife-vehicle-collisions aren’t anywhere near the top of that list. Nearly half of all the crashes on this corridor from 2010-2014 were due to cars going too fast for the roadway. ITD estimates $50 million could cover the necessary improvements for the corridor that would help to prevent the 90 percent of crashes that happen for reasons other than the wildlife.
If the Idaho Transportation Department’s plans go through, roughly half of all the money spent revamping this highway would be spent primarily to save the lives of a few animals—a hard sell when there are countless Idahoans who pay their taxes expecting better roads and bridges. There is no shortage of pending projects where $50 million could make a substantial difference in the safety for motorists, but wildlife overpasses on US Highway 20 are not one of them.