The Flathead County Courthouse, placed in its distinct stature at the southern doorstep of downtown Kalispell, sits on an island surrounded by the main thoroughfare of U.S. Highway 93 flowing into the heart of the city.
It’s a unique layout that showcases the prominent historical structure front and center on Main Street. It’s also a troublesome – and some say extremely hazardous – bottleneck that squeezes traffic into winding single lanes on each side.
“The safety is such a huge issue. There are hundreds of people crossing every day. I’m one of them,” Mike Pence, the county administrator, said of the pedestrian road crossings around the courthouse.
Administrators with the Montana Department of Transportation agree. The agency has wanted to address the courthouse couplet since the early 1990s, before traffic flow significantly increased through Kalispell and before the U.S. 93 Alternate Route began materializing as an attempt to reduce traffic congestion through downtown.
But in the decades since potential adjustments were seriously analyzed, the project has gathered dust and been set aside for other major highway projects, including the development of Kalispell’s bypass.
“It’s one of the oldest projects we still have on the books for the entire state. It’s been around for a long time,” said Ed Toavs, district administrator for MDT.
Now attention is returning to the couplet. An engineering firm, Robert Peccia & Associates, is working on behalf of MDT and developing plans for potentially reshaping the highway design around the couplet. One of the options under consideration is adding another lane to both sides, making U.S. 93 two lanes around the couplet, keeping the highway consistent between Whitefish and Somers.
Flathead County commissioners have already come out in unanimous support of another option: removing the highway lanes on the west side of the courthouse and adding four lanes of north and southbound traffic on the east side. CTA Architects Engineers have crafted preliminary renderings based around the county’s vision, showing a pedestrian pathway atop the former road with a small inlet allowing handicap parking and other vehicular access within the newly designed county campus.
This re-alignment would better connect the campus and provide safer access for employees and residents, Pence said.
“We are not proposing to abandon the historical couplet concept. We’re changing where the traffic will be on the east side and adding pedestrian and some vehicular access on the west wide,” Pence said. “All traffic from both the north and south will view the historic courthouse and campus area prior to driving the east loop side of the couplet. The key and most important element to our plan is public safety, but will secondarily benefit the public with a very attractive transportation solution that fits today’s challenges and needs.”
This potential change has already sparked concern within Kalispell’s City Hall, where staff members and city councilors have questioned the potential realignment. At last week’s city council meeting, councilor Tim Kluesner emphasized his support for the current alignment, describing it as iconic and an important feature for downtown. Mayor Mark Johnson also agreed that the city should review the matter further, and a work session is being scheduled for August.
Kalispell’s senior planner, Kevin LeClair, attended a recent scoping meeting with county officials and MDT administrators about the couplet. He told the group about the new planning efforts surrounding downtown and how businesses and stakeholders are already concerned about the heavy traffic volume on Main Street. He said several people are worried that increasing the number of lanes around the courthouse would only continue to flow large amounts of traffic into downtown and hamper any efforts to transform Main Street into a calmer, more attractive city center.
“That is the entry to historic downtown Kalispell. What a great feature it is to have that building that naturally slows down traffic and creates a traditional Main Street feel,” LeClair said. “This is a watershed moment: is Main Street going to be a highway or Kalispell’s Main Street?”
The City of Kalispell has not taken a formal position on any potential changes involving the couplet, but the council and staff will certainly need to be involved in the process. The parks on each side of the courthouse, encompassing 1.66 acres of green space, are city-owned properties. In order to create four lanes on the east side, or add another lane to both sides, MDT would need to acquire additional property to accommodate the space. Two businesses — McGarvey Law Office and the Kalispell Foot and Ankle Clinic – would need to be removed.
“I’m encouraged by the council wanting to have a work session. I look forward to the process and I think all parties need to be at the table,” Kalispell City Manager Doug Russell said.
“Hopefully we can all get together and come to a consensus,” Pence said. “We think it’s worthy of giving serious consideration.”
Various concepts and options are being drafted, but Toavs said either way something needs to be done. The street and sidewalks around the couplet are already in poor shape. The drainage is faulty and often pools up with water, creating another safety hazard. Even when the bypass is completed, effectively rerouting traffic away from downtown, the increasing population of the Flathead will demand better road infrastructure at the couplet, Toavs said.
“It’s just an old facility that needs to really be modernized and upgraded to handle the kinds of traffic it has to handle,” he said. “It’s kind of an interesting situation. There’s probably reasons it’s been thought over for a long time.”
A public meeting will take place in the late fall or early winter once design options are further developed, Toavs said.