Kalispell Bypass Being Bypassed?

By Beacon Staff

City and county officials are banding together with the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce and organizing a united show of support for the U.S. Highway 93 Alternate Route after the state’s highway commission raised questions about the prolonged construction of the bypass and balked at approving one of its adjacent projects.

The Montana Transportation Commission, a board of five members appointed from across the state by the governor that decides the fate of proposed highway projects, voted to take no action on Kalispell’s Four Mile Drive construction at its regular meeting in Missoula on July 25.

Commission chairman Kevin Howlett of Arlee, who represents the region of Northwest Montana, expressed concern about the project and the bypass as a whole during the meeting. Howlett could not be reached for comment.

Lori Ryan, secretary for the commission, said the board members are seeking additional information before taking another vote. The commission’s next meeting is Sept. 26 in Helena, and Ryan said it would be unclear until the first week of September if the Four Mile Drive proposal would be on the agenda at that meeting.

The commission’s decision to question the future of the Four Mile Drive project — and possibly the bypass — has sparked city and county officials and business leaders to rally around the project.

Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, has begun circulating a petition among the business community seeking endorsements of the bypass’s completion. Unterreiner is also organizing transportation to Helena and encouraging as many residents as possible to attend as a show of support.

“We encourage policy makers at all levels to support the completion of the Kalispell Bypass as a top priority for Kalispell and Montana’s highway system,” Unterreiner wrote in his petition.

“The bypass is a vital transportation link for the entire Flathead Valley and has received strong support from our congressional delegation, state delegation, city and county officials and business groups for many years.”

Kalispell city staff also plan to attend the meeting and explain the importance of the bypass, which is more than halfway completed and in its final stages.

Both the city council and Flathead County commissioners are preparing to vote on resolutions declaring their support of the bypass, according to officials from both governing bodies.

“We’re definitely on board for supporting the continuing of that bypass,” County Administrator Mike Pence said.

Estimated at roughly $3 million, the Four Mile Drive project would include connecting the unfinished road at Stillwater Road, developing a traffic interchange and constructing a bridge that would span over the future bypass. The project, which followed the recommendation of the Montana Department of Transportation, could be completed within two years and would alleviate congestion at Kidsports Complex and create an “integral” part of the bypass, according to Kalispell Planning Director Tom Jentz.

The city’s technical advisory committee tabbed it as the top local highway project that would be paid for by an annual accumulation of federal funds.

“What we heard was there was a frustration with so much money being targeted and going toward the bypass,” Jentz said. “We were surprised here because there hasn’t been that much state money. It’s been congressional earmarks and appropriations and federal programs funding the south half (of the bypass).”

Jentz estimated that roughly 70 percent of the bypass has been paid for by federal funds. The Four Mile Drive project would not require a special allocation or compete for funds with other state projects, he said, but would simply use urban highway funds the city has collected over the years. It’s the same funding mechanism that paid for North Meridian’s development, he said.

“We looked at Four Mile Drive as instant relief to assist Kidsports Complex,” he said. “And it would provide another way out of north Kalispell. It would be an integral part when the bypass is built so the community doesn’t get severed.”

The Four Mile project is shovel-ready and could be completed within two years, Jentz said, but needs state approval.

“That’s a big boost for the community, both in construction dollars and having a useable piece of road in place for when the bypass is finished,” he said. “It makes so much sense and it’s in our long-range traffic plan.”

Construction is underway on the latest stage of bypass development on the north side of Kalispell along West Reserve Drive and Reserve Loop. A new four-lane road will wind south from the U.S. 93 intersection behind Holiday Inn Express and the site of the future Cabela’s Outpost retail store and connect to Reserve Loop.

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