Eastern Idaho eclipse traffic could be a nightmare — but there is a plan to help

Idaho Falls

The traffic after the 2017 July 4 Melaleuca Freedom Celebration | Nate Eaton, EastIdahoNews.com

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the third in an ongoing series about preparations for the full solar eclipse on Aug. 21 in eastern Idaho.

IDAHO FALLS — Is the post-Independence Day fireworks traffic still on the forefront of your mind?

Good, because local agencies are expecting eastern Idaho traffic during the eclipse to be just as bad, if not worse.

The big difference is that Idaho Falls and police generally know what to expect with fireworks traffic on July 4 — the main viewing area, the parking situation, and how and when people will want to exit. It happens every year. Unfortunately, they don’t exactly know all that about the eclipse, which happens Aug. 21.

Idaho Transportation Department spokesman Bruce King said that because of so many unknowns local officials have been meeting monthly to prepare and plan for traffic issues surrounding the eclipse.

They expect that people from out of town will start to funnel into eastern Idaho sometime over the weekend preceding, perhaps as early as Thursday; but there are those in Montana or Utah who may try to come in the day before or even the same day. Then after the eclipse is over, many visitors will likely want to leave immediately after and into the following day.

Some estimate the region’s population to double to around 500,000 people during the eclipse. With only so much road space available, there is the potential for a traffic nightmare, especially on Interstate 15, U.S. Highway 20 and Idaho Highway 33, but even downtown Idaho Falls and other main roads as well.

“ITD also is examining its roadways to identify locations that could become a bottleneck,” King explained. “We anticipate that Exit 119 on Interstate 15 in Idaho Falls could become congested. Portable electronic message boards will be placed ahead the exit if necessary.

“Highway crews will monitor rest-area use and patrol roads to assist emergency responders, communicating by radio if needed. Electronic message signs will inform motorists of road conditions and traffic flow. ITD is coordinating with local, state and federal jurisdictions on traffic control, messaging (electronic signs, advisory radio, websites, etc.) and aircraft support/regulations (if needed).”

U.S. Highway 20 and other major roadways in Eastern Idaho are expected to see a lot of extra traffic as many visitors descend the area during the eclipse. | Idaho Transportation Department

King added portable toilets will be placed at numerous locations on the highway system; ITD is also suspending highway construction where traffic is expected to be impacted. Still, exits and entrances especially could be slow going, King said.

“It could be like Los Angeles rush hour, or worse,” said Timothy Marsano, Public Information Officer for Idaho State Police in Meridian. “We’re bringing in other state troopers from other regions in Idaho who aren’t impacted by the eclipse to provide additional support.”

Another consideration is that the eclipse is happening during peak wildfire season. Likely there will be a lot of people camping. A hot car driving over dry brush could ignite a fire. Police remind drivers not to drive off pavement and definitely do not pull over on the side of the freeway or highway, except in case of emergency.

The biggest takeaway for residents is that the increased traffic will mean increased time getting places. Marsano said to give yourself plenty of time to get where you need to go, but to also be smart about your travel plans during the eclipse.

“I think it’s unrealistic to leave Salt Lake City and zip on up I-15 or I-86 and expect to be back in Salt Lake City by dinner. Leaving may be a bigger challenging than getting in,” he said.

Residents and visitors are urged to visit 511.idaho.gov to see what is on the highway reader boards in real time, such as accidents, lane closures, fires, etc. before you even get in your car. Additionally people can sign up at isp.idaho.gov to get news releases for accidents and other incidents.

Related: Worried about cell service during the eclipse?

“This is a hope for the best, but plan for worst case scenario,” Marsano said. Local hospitals are also preparing for the eclipse in case of increased accidents or other incidents.

Visitors from other countries means there may be people on the road who are not familiar with driving in the U.S., and if there is a traffic incident there could be a language barrier. Locals should be willing to help where they can, according to Idaho Falls spokeswoman Kerry Hammon said.

“If you see someone stranded, reach out and help. It’s going to take EMS, fire, and police longer to respond. Our goal is to prepare and provide with info they need now so at least residents are prepared, and they can help us be ambassadors to others coming in who aren’t as prepared. We need all of you to help our guests.”

Captain Steve Davis of the Idaho State Police in Idaho Falls said his biggest wish is for everything to go smoothly. “I would love nothing more than to sit in my office on the day of the eclipse to find that this is nothing and everything is safe,” he said.

The public is invited to attend the city’s eclipse planning meeting on July 26 at 7 p.m. at the Civic Auditorium. For more information about the upcoming eclipse, visit eastidahoeclipse.com.

Respond to this story