Long Considered a Dream, Bypass on Verge of Becoming Reality

By Beacon Staff

Just a few months ago, there were grumblings in Kalispell that the U.S. Highway 93 Bypass would never happen. Now, with any luck, the first phase of the project’s southern portion from Highway 93 South to U.S. Highway 2 West could be completed sometime next summer or fall.

“A year from now, there could be people driving on that roadway,” said Jim Lynch, director of the Montana Department of Transportation. “With all the moons aligned and the weather cooperating, that’s a possibility.”

The MDT is in the process of finalizing negotiations to purchase the last remaining right-of-way parcel along the future southern stretch of the bypass. The agreement has been made and once all of the signatures from the participating parties are collected, Lynch said the MDT only has to obtain a storm water permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before bid letting can occur.

Bid letting could happen as early as Nov. 5 with construction beginning within the month if the contractor chooses. Given Montana’s November weather, however, groundbreaking might be pushed off until the spring.

The southern section of the four-lane bypass begins on U.S. Highway 93 South near Gardner’s RV and Trailer Center and curves north along the abandoned Burlington Northern Railroad until it hits Highway 2 near Appleway Drive. The northern section, which is in the final design stages and still has right-of-ways to be purchased, will ultimately continue the bypass from Highway 2 back to Highway 93 at Reserve Drive.

Originally broken into three portions, the southern section will now be completed in two segments. The first segment, which will go to bid in November, will run from Highway 2 to Airport Road. The second, with bid letting expected in December, will run from Airport Road to Highway 93. Initially, two lanes and the bike path will be completed to get traffic moving as soon as possible. The other two lanes will be completed afterward, but there will be two-lane traffic in the meantime.

The cost of the southern section is estimated between $34 and $36 million, Lynch said. Funds come from federal earmarks and stimulus monies. The right-of-way funds also came from federal earmarks, Lynch said.

For downtown advocates, the quick progression of the bypass over the past few months is welcome, if surprising, news. Marshall Noice, a board member of both the Kalispell Downtown Association and Business Improvement District, said “only a few months ago knowledgeable people were saying that it wouldn’t happen in our lifetimes.” Noice owns an art gallery on Main Street, which is also Highway 93 currently.

No one can blame Noice and others for expressing doubt. An alternate truck route has been discussed for decades. To his knowledge, Noice said there are design plans for such a route dating back to 1957. More recently, plans gained momentum in the 1990s but the alternate route still seemed a distant thought to many until the last several years.

Noice and other BID members are making a push to change the popular name of the “bypass” to “alternate truck route,” which he said “is really what it is.” The word bypass, Noice and others feel, leads people to believe that regular traffic will be bypassed around downtown, when really the hope for the project is that it will stimulate downtown.

“It’s going to have a hugely positive impact,” Noice said.

Downtown Kalispell, with a constant procession of tractor-trailers and noisy highway traffic, isn’t the most inviting pedestrian atmosphere, Noice said. As a result, the city’s business core has suffered.

Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President Joe Unterreiner, who has been a vocal supporter of the bypass, said he has heard concerns that the project could have the opposite effect and actually detour normal traffic around downtown. While acknowledging these concerns, Unterreiner believes the ultimate result will be beneficial.

“It will be great for the community,” Unterreiner said.

Noice hopes the project will open up new business and event possibilities by letting “our street be controlled by our community instead of by the federal government as a highway.” He made the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle. If downtown revitalization is a puzzle, the alternate route forms the puzzle’s edges.

“All of a sudden everything gets a little bit easier,” Noice said.

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