Stimulus: State Officials Push for 93 Bypass

By Beacon Staff

The current economic recession may prove the necessary push to bring the long-awaited U.S. Highway 93 bypass from conjecture to reality.

State officials have included about $45 million for sections of the Kalispell bypass on a list of potential state projects that could begin within six months if Congress approves President Barack Obama’s proposed federal economic-stimulus bill.

“The Department of Transportation has identified projects – probably more than we’d ever receive stimulus funding for – to make sure whatever money, if any, is allocated here that it can be spent and kept here,” Director Jim Lynch said.

“The Kalispell bypass is one of the projects in that area that we think has potential to be shovel ready,” he added.

Obama has proposed a fiscal recovery package, a combination of spending and tax cuts, which weighs in at $825 billion and counting. The stimulus plan provides funds for sweeping infrastructure improvements, as well as other economic needs in an effort to create a surge in jobs and stimulate the sagging economy.

Congress is expected to decide on the plan by Presidents Day, Feb. 16.

Across Montana, state, city and county officials are positioning to get a chunk of the monies, drawing up lists that detail the foremost infrastructure needs.

In the Flathead, municipalities are requesting funding for projects like county road paving, Whitefish’s proposed emergency services center, Columbia Falls’ $3.9-million wastewater treatment plant and a sewer system in the ever-growing north portion of Kalispell.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s office, meanwhile, has compiled a 23-page wish list of projects totaling some $3.1 billion. The biggest chunk of the money, about $1.6 billion, would go to the state transportation department, about $45 million of which is designated for the Kalispell bypass.

Last fall, plans for the bypass were scaled back when the project’s advisory committee reversed its push to develop sections of the road in their entirety and agreed to consider a two-lane design with roundabouts instead. The total cost for the two-lane project is projected to be around $70 million.

The state is requesting stimulus funding for just three sections of the two-lane bypass: the southern portion, between an area near Gardner’s RV and U.S. 2 West; a road behind Mountain View Plaza and through Hutton Ranch Plaza; and a connecting road from Hutton Ranch Road to West Reserve Drive.

“People might ask why we’re not asking for the whole thing, but they’re looking for shovel-ready and these are the pieces that we have the designs completed or just about completed and could have ready the quickest,” Tom Jentz, chairman of the bypass’s Technical Advisory Committee and Kalispell’s planning director said.

And even then, there are still some hurdles: Local residents haven’t agreed to sell some right-of-way designations along the three proposed sections. “That’s the one thing that could hold this up,” Jentz said.

If the stimulus bill covers part of the bypass, the rest of the project likely hinges on the federal highway bill, which will be reauthorized in 2009. Already, House leadership has signaled that the number of earmarks in the bill will have to be slashed, perhaps even halved.

Jentz said having stimulus funding – and work already completed on the ground – should help leverage the bypass later for more aid.

“The stimulus is a welcome surprise,” Jentz said, “but it’s also the way we anticipated funding this. If something comes along we knew we needed to be ready to jump on board and run with it.”

It’s hard to tell yet where the bypass ranks on the state’s wish list. Lynch said the projects won’t be prioritized until the rules of the stimulus package are approved and the amount of funding that flows into the state.

To Jentz the bypass is a prime candidate.

“We think it’s a perfect fit project,” he said. “It’s a ready-to-go project, a project that provides jobs and a project that’s needed not just for the community, but for the larger transportation system.”