Flathead Valley Rallying Support for Bypass

By Beacon Staff

The highway thoroughfare that runs from downtown Kalispell to the teeming business district to the north features one of the busiest stretches in Montana, according to the state’s transportation department.

Over the last year, roughly 35,000 vehicles a day traveled through the intersection of U.S. Highway 93 where Grandview and Four Mile converge.

Other segments in the highway corridor experienced similar high volumes, including the intersection at West Reserve Drive and U.S. 93, where multiple traffic counters tallied 27,300 vehicles daily on average, or Main and Idaho, which saw 25,100 per day.

But the intersection between two of the valley’s busiest properties — Kidsports Complex and Flathead Valley Community College — logged the most activity in Kalispell and second most in Western Montana.

The latest study by the Montana Department of Transportation shows the bustling intersection ranks behind only one other road on this side of the state. South Reserve Street in Missoula experiences between 37,000 to 42,000 vehicles a day on average.

The flurry of traffic at Kalispell’s particular intersection is no doubt tied to the site’s current alignment. Grandview Drive is the primary source of access to the college, while Four Mile Drive is incomplete and dead ends past Kidsports, meaning both roads force high amounts of traffic back into the main flow of the highway.

It’s worth noting, too, that MDT’s figures are based on 12-month averages, meaning the quieter shoulder seasons and winter months drop Kalispell’s overall traffic rate. During the bustling summer months, when vehicles flood into the Flathead Valley, the daily traffic count at the Grandview and Four Mile intersection likely swells well above 35,000, according to an MDT official.

“That stretch of road during summertime will compete with anything in Western Montana, and in that matter, it is one of the busiest stretches in all of the state,” said Ed Toavs, MDT district administrator.

Flathead Valley residents don’t need a reminder, but city officials are preparing to re-emphasize the issue in Helena later this month as concerns grow over the prolonged development and fate of the U.S. 93 Alternate Route, or bypass.

The Kalispell Technical Advisory Committee, which helps steer the city’s transportation planning, is convening Sept. 11 at 1:30 p.m. to organize resources and develop a strategy to present to the state’s highway board on Sept. 26. The meeting at the Red Lion Hotel conference room inside Kalispell Center Mall will include presentations from MDT officials on the historical goal of the bypass and its current status. City officials will also explain the importance of both the alternate route and the proposed completion of Four Mile Drive.

Kalispell Planning Director and TAC Chairman Tom Jentz sent out a letter last week announcing the public meeting, hoping to drum up unified support for what he describes as an integral part of the valley’s transportation system.

Jentz’s letter came on the heels of a recent gathering in Missoula where the highway board voted to hold off on approving the Four Mile project and raised questions about the bypass’s priority status on a state level.

The surprise turn of events has mobilized government officials and business leaders in the Flathead Valley to rally support for its long drawn-out bypass.

The Kalispell City Council is scheduled to vote on a resolution of support for the bypass and Four Mile Drive project at its biweekly meeting on Sept. 3. The Flathead County commissioners are expected to follow suit with their own vote, according to administrator Mike Pence. The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce is gathering signatures for a petition backing the bypass and is sponsoring free transportation to the Sept. 26 board meeting, when board members are expected to readdress the issue.

State and local lawmakers and community leaders are being called to attention, too, including Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, the Flathead legislative delegation, city council members, county commissioners, FVCC officials and the chamber of commerce.

“We are greatly concerned that the Montana Highway Commission is not fully committed to nor fully understands the need for the completion of the U.S. Highway 93 Alternate Route and that the action to table the completion of Four Mile Drive in Kalispell needs to be reversed,” Jentz wrote.
Four Mile Drive is being touted as both an important part of the bypass and an independent need for the city’s grid.

The City of Kalispell is proposing it use urban highway funds that have accrued over the years to connect both sides of Four Mile at Stillwater Road, creating another outlet for traffic near Kidsports and alleviating congestion on U.S. 93. The project would include developing an interchange that could bridge over the future bypass and play an integral role in the city’s transportation system.

The project is estimated at roughly $3 million. The city receives an annual allotment of $600,000 for urban highway projects. The city currently has $1.2 million saved up in the fund, according to Jentz, and expects to have sufficient funding to pay for completing Four Mile Drive when engineering is completed. The city’s TAC voted unanimously in support of the project.

But it will be significantly cheaper to finish Four Mile now before the bypass develops. If not, the project could become cost prohibitive, according to Jentz. It could also jeopardize leaving a two-mile gap along the western side of Kalispell between West Reserve Drive and Three Mile Drive without any east-west access points, he said.

Road Projects in the Pipeline
A rundown of other highway projects under review in the Flathead Valley:

Kalispell’s Three Mile Drive
The state transportation department is preparing to seek contract bids for another section of Kalispell’s bypass, at Three Mile Drive. The project, estimated at $5 million, will include rebuilding a half-mile section of Three Mile and include an interchange and bridge over the future bypass. According to Ed Toavs, MDT district administrator, the project could break ground next spring. Although it could likely be completed before the bypass surfaces, Toavs said constructing it now will help avoid more than $500,000 in throwaway costs in the future. MDT is also negotiating with the remaining two landowners who own parcels near Two Mile Drive where the bypass is designed to run, according to Toavs.

Hungry Horse Bridge

MDT is hoping to replace the U.S. Highway 2 bridge over the South Fork Flathead River in Hungry Horse in the next five years, according to Toavs. The state is planning to replace the current bridge with a new two-lane bridge that includes a pedestrian pathway. The project is estimated at $13.3 million and has already received more than $3 million in federal grant funding. A previous proposal to create a four-lane bridge was expected to be too expensive, Toavs said. The new construction, targeted to begin in 2017, will also straighten out corners near the current site.

Bigfork Swan River Bridge

The state is seeking comments on a proposal to replace the bridge over the Swan River on Secondary 209, about five miles east of Bigfork. Proposed work includes removal of the existing bridge and construction of a new one on the same alignment. Construction is tentatively planned for 2016 depending on completion of design and availability of funds, according to MDT.

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