State transportation officials haven’t forgotten about the south half of the Kalispell bypass.
The long-awaited U.S. Highway 93 Alternate Route was made whole last fall when the four-lane north section was opened to vehicles, but the busyness of the 7-mile highway is heightening attention on the southern portion, which stretches from U.S. 93 South to U.S. 2 and remains only two lanes with roundabouts that frequently stack up with traffic.
“The bypass is popular and we keep hearing from people who say, ‘Please come back and finish the south half.’ We will,” Ed Toavs, regional administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation, said this week in Kalispell. “It’s demonstrating a need and it’s only been a year.”
Toavs said the initial cost estimate to expand the south half to four lanes with interchanges at Foys Lake Road and Airport Road is $35-$40 million. The agency still needs to acquire a few right-of-way properties along the route as well as update the design, Toavs said.
A pared-down version of the south half was built with two lanes and roundabouts as a cost-saving measure to get the project off the ground in 2008 after federal funding became available.
Toavs was in town to discuss a new analysis that showed the total economic impact of the bypass exceeded $1 billion over the life of the project’s construction, which spanned 16 years from 2001 to last fall. Roughly 2 million square feet of new building space has surfaced along the bypass route, worth roughly $140 million in project costs. The bypass also created an average of 760 jobs per year.
The economic report highlights the ripple effects of infrastructure investment. Transportation funding remains highly competitive in Montana, a state that depends largely on federal dollars to supplement the infrastructure development. The entire bypass cost just over $135 million, and roughly $120 million was federal funding.
Toavs said western Montana has several high-profile projects awaiting funding, including the dilapidated Russell Street bridge in Missoula and the congested West Reserve Drive in Kalispell, a two-lane roadway that averages more than 17,000 cars a day. In summertime, West Reserve can spike to more than 20,000 cars a day, which “is a problem,” Toavs said.
Nevertheless, the bypass remains a hallmark project that is officially incomplete.
When asked if a possible timeline exists for completing the south bypass, Toavs offered a hopeful guess, “Ten years, max.”