To pave or not to pave? The question of what to do with the North Fork Road was further debated Tuesday night in Columbia Falls. Residents, local business owners and Flathead County officials gathered at the Glacier Discovery Square to discuss the recently released draft of a $125,000 study on the corridor.
Taking into account the environmental, historical, residential and economical factors surrounding the North Fork Road, also known as State Highway 486, the study highlighted numerous actions that could be taken to address residents’ road concerns.
Besides paving or not paving the rural route, other fixes include adding additional gravel, implementing dust abatement technology or rebuilding the crown to improve drainage.
Armed with large diagrams, 10 draft staff members were on hand to explain various sections of the 57-page document.
“Some people want to drive on a paved road while some want to keep it in a primitive state,” a staff member said as he pointed to a chart of options and their costs. “We’re not here to make a decision. This forum is to identify options.”
The open-forum meeting differed from the initial public meeting held in April, where several officials spoke to an assembled audience. According to draft team member Lani Eggertsen-Goff, Tuesday night’s focus was to hear and record the public’s input.
“Western Federal Lands gave us some feedback to try something different,” Eggertsen-Goff said. “Instead of one or two people talking, we wanted the public to get their questions answered.”
The two-lane North Fork Road runs against the western boundary of Glacier National Park. The study focuses on a 13-mile section between the junction with Blankenship Road and the junction with Camas Creek Road. During the summer months, the road averages 400 vehicles a day while wintertime traffic is much less and largely residential.
Paving proponents say that an improved road would boost the area’s economy, improve emergency response times, serve as an alternative route to Glacier National Park and improve air and water quality. Their biggest issue is the large amount of vision-impairing dust that gets kicked up by vehicles, especially during the drier summer months.
Opponents, meanwhile, want to maintain the rustic nature of the North Fork area and believe that a paved road would attract more tourists and development. They also voice concern that increased traffic and higher speeds would be detrimental to wildlife.
“I would like to see it paved,” North Fork property owner Karen McDonough said as she sat at the table and flipped through the report.
“It’s widely perceived that most North Fork residents don’t want it paved,” a woman sitting next to her, who didn’t want to be named, said. “It’s actually the opposite, but their voices are louder.”
Across the room and on the opposite side of the argument stood Cecily McNeil, a long-time Flathead Valley resident. She wore a scoutmaster’s hat with a band of construction paper around the brim that read, “No paving, Gravel, yes!”
“I was afraid that no one would say anything,” McNeil said. “This really matters to me.”
Although there might have been much contention in the room, most could agree on one thing: the sweltering temperature in the lobby.
“I have to sit down,” McNeil said, removing her hat and sitting at a table. “It’s too hot in here.”
The timeline for public comment ends Aug 10 and the final draft of the study will be completed Aug 27. A link to the study and more information about the research can be found at http://www.mdt.mt.gov/pubinvolve/northfork/.
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