Corridor Study Begins on North Fork Road

By Beacon Staff

The seemingly perpetual debate over whether to pave Highway 486, also known as North Fork Flathead Road, took a new turn this week as residents gathered with Flathead County and state transportation officials to kick off a corridor study.

And though the public gathering was intended to round up residents’ road concerns, it quickly raised familiar arguments from both sides of the issue, including dust control and potential overdevelopment.

The April 20 meeting began with an explanation from Montana Department of Transportation Director Jim Lynch about what a corridor study is not. It is not an environmental assessment, he said, nor is it to decide whether to pursue paving.

“This allows us, as a community, to look at what we’ve got going on on a particular roadway,” Lynch told a crowd of about 80 people gathered at Columbia Falls City Hall.

Lani Eggersten-Goff of Parsons Brinckerhoff, a strategic planning, engineering and consulting firm, said the study is also not a preliminary or final design project, a right-of-way acquisition or a construction or maintenance project. Instead, it is a broad assessment of transportation issues or problems and the options available for a community, she said.

This particular corridor study will focus on the gravel road between Blankenship and Camas roads.

This section of the corridor is a state secondary highway, Lynch said, and, if it were paved, MDT would take over maintenance responsibilities. As it sits now, the county is responsible for the gravel road and will ultimately make any decisions about road changes, Lynch said. MDT is footing the bill for the $125,000 corridor study.

People from both sides of the paving debate aired their concerns during the meeting, which was organized to gather information from the public to help with the study.

Dust was the biggest concern for the pro-pavement crowd, who said driving on the gravel pushes unhealthy amounts of particulates into the air and into the North Fork of the Flathead River.

Many referenced a 2008 dust study on the road completed by the University of Montana at the behest of the North Fork Road Coalition for Health and Safety. The study fortified the assertion that airborne particulates often exceed federally regulated levels.

Lynn Ogle also had health concerns about driving a gravel road, but his worries focused on travel times for emergency personnel to reach North Fork residents. Paving the road could decrease these times, he said.

“It’s not going to get cheaper to do this,” Ogle said. “This would enhance at least fire departments, ambulances and law enforcement.”

Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart announced the city council’s support for paving the road section because it could bring more tourism dollars into the city by providing an alternate, paved entrance into Glacier National Park.

Other members of the business community echoed this sentiment, saying a paved road could boost the economy and stymie growing unemployment numbers.

Residents who favor the gravel, however, said further pavement would inevitably bring more development into the North Fork, which they said would diminish the environment and wildlife, particularly grizzly bears.

A new facet to this argument emerged with the recent Memorandum of Understanding signed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell, which aims to protect the watershed in the North Fork of the Flathead Valley on both sides of the border.

Edwin Fields of Headwaters Montana warned that the stay on development is not final and Canadian government officials would view any perceived development negatively.

“This is not a done deal. That area seems to be protected, but even with a memorandum of understanding it’s not done,” Fields said. “It’s a fragile situation.”

And any dust on North Fork Road would not compare to a potential mine upstream if the deal falls through, Fields added.

Other people asked about different dust control methods, such as enforcing the speed limit or making the road narrower.

Residents were encouraged to write down their comments and concerns, which will be added to the study. There will be a second public information meeting, and a draft of the corridor study is expected in July. The study should be completed by the end of August, Eggersten-Goff said.