Road Map for the Future

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – Everyone agrees that the three-phase road-widening project underway on U.S. Highway 93 West outside of Whitefish is as necessary as it is inconvenient.

The highway is being reconstructed by the state Department of Transportation to build infrastructure and make badly needed road improvements, including a new bridge spanning the Whitefish River. But because the highway improvements will transform the corridor, which serves as the gateway entrance to Whitefish from the north, nearby residents and business owners have been chiming in about a land-use plan that wwould help steer future growth along the busy corridor.

At a recent open house at Whitefish City Hall, contractors with the design firm WGM Group displayed the elaborate, multi-year project plan on a series of blueprints, which ran horizontally around the walls of the council chambers.

The road improvements include a pedestrian and bike path and road and sewer improvements. But residents on West Third Street, which runs parallel to the highway, worry that upgrades to and expansion of the corridor will draw new businesses and increase residential traffic in a way that doesn’t jibe with the residential feel of the adjacent neighborhoods.

“We would like to keep the character of our street,” West Third Street resident Susan Prilliman said. “I think we have the right to maintain the character of our neighborhood. That is why we moved here.”

Businesses currently occupying the corridor are compatible with the ambiance of her neighborhood, Prilliman said, but she is concerned that a suite of potential new businesses, like a previously proposed microbrewery that met resistance from the Third Street set, will stay open too late and draw an excess of late-night traffic. However, businesses like the Whitefish Animal Hospital don’t bother her.

“I think those businesses fit in really well so I would be happy to see other commercial uses that fit those parameters,” she said. “They are quiet, the traffic patterns are fine and their hours of activity are reasonable.”

Because the highway improvements will significantly reshape the corridor, city officials say it is important to develop a sufficient land-use plan for an area that consists of a hodgepodge of zoning designations, including suburban residential, resort residential, resort business, low density residential and high density residential. The zoning switches to commercial after the highway crosses the Whitefish River and enters downtown.

“We’re just trying to give people an opportunity to voice their concerns and express their opinions and gauge what they would like to see,” Whitefish Planning Director David Taylor said.

The city of Whitefish contracted with WGM Group to prepare a corridor plan focusing on future land use for Highway 93 West after it became clear that the highway could not accommodate the city’s growth. The existing two-lane highway, originally constructed in 1936, has experienced a major uptick in traffic volume due to growth and development, contributing to an above-average accident rate.

According to data gathered by WGM, the average daily vehicle traffic on the section of highway between downtown Whitefish and Twin Bridges Road was 12,200 vehicles in 2010; by 2030, with a growth rate of 2.6 percent, they anticipate a daily volume of 20,400 vehicles.

Other major improvements to infrastructure include re-grading the highway to improve motorists’ sight distance, construction of a new storm drain system, replacing sewer and water lines, relocating overhead utility lines, building new curbs, gutters and medians and installing a new sidewalk and a multi-use path.

The open house is part of an ongoing public process that includes a project steering committee and three additional project involvement meetings.

For more information, visit the City of Whitefish website at www.whitefish.govoffice.com. Project-specific information can be found by clicking on “Projects” and selecting “Highway 93 West Corridor Land Use Plan Information.”