An administrator with Montana’s transportation department last week reiterated the importance of completing the U.S. Highway 93 Alternate Route and reaffirmed the agency’s support of Kalispell’s prolonged road project while concerns linger over its timely completion.
“This is really needed. A bypass that’s only a half-pass does not serve its purpose. That’s the bottom line,” Ed Toavs, the district administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation, told the city’s technical advisory committee and a crowd of nearly 30 people last week.
“The opportunity for us to deliver this in the next couple of years with some help I think is pretty good. Later in the decade, not so much.”
The unfinished bypass, described by city planners as a vital redevelopment project that could transform the city’s landscape, is back at the center of debate as it competes with other road projects in Western Montana for its final portion of funding.
The Montana Transportation Commission, a board of five members appointed from across the state by the governor, has raised questions about the project’s priority status among other state projects, including the expansion of Highway 93 between Ronan and St. Ignatius. At its meeting in July, the commission also voted not to act on Kalispell’s proposed Four Mile Drive project, an adjacent road development that would alleviate congestion at one of the busiest intersections in the state but needs commission approval before being eligible for the city’s allotted urban highway funding.
“It’s a project that can be designed and go to construction in a couple of years. It’s not a really big $20 million job,” Toavs said, describing the Four Mile project. “It’s just something that makes an awful lot of sense.”
The state commission will convene Sept. 26 in Helena and review Four Mile Drive and the bypass. Toavs and city planners are planning to attend the meeting and explain why both projects are integral and worthy of support.
Toavs and city officials urged residents from the Flathead Valley, including local lawmakers and business leaders, to attend the meeting in a show of support. The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring a free shuttle for residents to attend the meeting.
Kalispell state Sen. Bruce Tutvedt spoke up during last week’s gathering as a proponent, saying, “I’ve lived out there my whole life and the community out there does support it and I think we need this.”
Kalispell Planning Director Tom Jentz reiterated the need for rerouting traffic around the city center and explained the need to act now while the opportunity is ripe.
“This is a project that will provide immediate help to a significant part of our community and it can be done in the next two to three years and we could be on this road,” Jentz said.
The Kalispell City Council passed a resolution stating its support for the bypass last week and the city’s technical advisory committee reaffirmed its stance, voting unanimously among 15 members to make Four Mile Drive the city’s urban highway priority project.
Four Mile Drive is an independent project but it could complement the future bypass. The city would like to complete the section of Four Mile that currently dead ends west of Kidsports Complex, the popular youth athletic fields. The construction, estimated at roughly $3 million, would include building a bridge that ties into Stillwater Road. It would also include creating an interchange that would eventually connect to the finished bypass, allowing traffic to enter and exit the alternate route. If Four Mile Drive is not approved and the bypass is completed first, the city could still create the interchange, but there would be roughly $1 million in throwaway costs, according to Toavs.
The city of Kalispell annually accrues $600,000 for specific urban highway projects. Kalispell’s last project involved Meridian Road. Funds have built up since then and the TAC chose to make Four Mile Drive its next project.
Toavs said the overall bypass is well suited for support because it’s further along in the design and planning stages than the slate of other highway proposals in Western Montana, including a bridge replacement in Hungry Horse and the highway expansions near Ronan and Whitefish.
“Those projects I just mentioned, they are at like steps two or three of 10,” Toavs said. “The bypass is at step nine.”
Decades in the making, the bypass project is in its final phases and has racked up more than $101 million in costs since breaking ground six years ago. According to MDT, 75 percent of the total bypass funding has come from federal earmarks and discretionary allocations through Congress and the Federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Roughly 25 percent has come through MDT’s regular federal funding program, which is prioritized by the state commission.
Stelling Engineers, the firm hired to help design the 7.6-mile alternate highway on the west side of Kalispell, estimates the final remaining costs to be roughly $39.6 million. Development restarted this summer along West Reserve Drive and Reserve Loop near Glacier High School.
Another phase at Three Mile Drive is ready to seek construction bids and is expected to break ground next spring. There are three right-of-way parcels remaining in the Two Mile Drive area, Toavs said, and MDT is planning to mediate with the landowners in the coming months. A total of 42 parcels have been acquired for the total bypass and 93 parcels are completed with owner notification.
Despite questions raised by the state commission, Toavs said the transportation department and its chief, Mike Tooley, are standing behind the city of Kalispell.
“I just want to say publicly, our department of transportation fully supports finishing this,” Toavs said. “I do think there will be some opportunity sooner than later to deliver this.”
For more information on the Kalispell bypass, visit www.kalispellbypass.com.
To inquire about the Chamber of Commerce’s shuttle to the state highway commission on Sept. 26, call 758-2800.
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