An ‘Extraordinary’ Investment

Bypass shows how infrastructure investment can change the trajectory of a city

There’s an ongoing and valid debate over whether the Legislature should have passed a bonding bill to fund infrastructure. Should the state make a long-term investment while rates are low? Or would borrowing just burden the next generation of Montanans with debt? Both are reasonable questions.

What’s unquestionable is how federal, state and municipal investment in infrastructure can change a place. And there is no better example of that —at least, locally — than the Kalispell bypass.

I drive the road, especially the north end, nearly every day. And when I do, I’m still in awe that an idea hatched in the 1940s actually came to fruition — exceeding expectations in both its design and ability to stir investment in Kalispell when the city needed it most.

Remember, much of the heavy lifting in the $135 million project, funded by state and federal funds, took place when the country was in the grip of the Great Recession. Jobs were hard to come by then. According to a recent economic impact analysis conducted by an administrator with the Montana Department of Transportation, the bypass construction employed an average of 760 people a year between 2001 and 2016.

This ambitious project, the report states, was “unique for Montana because it is a new highway as contrasted with upgrading an existing thoroughfare.” Simply acquiring the land for the road cost over $43 million, or nearly one-third of the total price tag. The final phase, a $34 million contract, was the largest awarded in MDT’s history.

Beyond the millions in investment and hundreds of jobs created by its construction, it’s the secondary effects that are so striking. It’s the improved access to Kidsports Complex, Glacier High School and Flathead Valley Community College. It’s the surrounding land, which had sat vacant and relatively inaccessible, that is now prime real estate.

“With the bypass open, active, and busy, development which restarted in earnest in 2014 continues with additional growth opportunities for businesses and residential construction,” the report states. “It is likely the entire development section will be utilized in the near future.”

You can see the progress in real time. More projects, residential and commercial, are breaking ground and even more are in the planning phase. Traffic that once choked through downtown into the commercial district is now spread over two main thoroughfares with access to new properties.

Over the next few years, we will see if the bypass has the desired impact on downtown Kalispell — if truck traffic lessens through the core of the city — and if the area continues to be viewed more as a destination than an inconvenient route from the south end to the north end of town. But it’s hard not to consider the bypass a success story that will transform how the region’s economic hub grows from here. It’s also, anymore, an unlikely story.

City, state and federal officials of different political stripes continued pushing for this project. It took decades to finish the new road, with new bike paths and a new public utility corridor that will enhance capacity and accommodate growth.

“The coordination effort in one of Montana’s urban areas made the impact of the bypass construction extraordinary by Montana standards,” the report states.

It was extraordinary. It also shows how infrastructure investment can change the trajectory of a city.