With the largest single contract awarded in the state’s history by the Montana Department of Transportation, LHC broke ground last week on the final phase of the Kalispell bypass. The stretch of road will wind 4.5 miles from U.S. Highway 2 to West Reserve Drive on the west side of the city in what local officials are calling a transformative moment in the city’s history. They’re not exaggerating.
The need for an alternative route around Kalispell’s core has loomed for decades, with the numerous local, statewide and federal officials diligently securing money, securing land and urging public support. Many thought it would never be completed. For a time, I was one of them. Now, construction crews are beginning the final phase and hoping to complete the road by the end of next year.
Its importance goes beyond convenience. Navigating around a dozen traffic lights when traveling north and south in Kalispell will save time, especially on the bustling commercial district on the north side. It also should ease congestion on Main Street, which continues to rebrand itself as a destination instead of a thoroughfare.
It also shifts the focus of downtown improvements to the potential removal of the railroad tracks cutting through the city and the future traffic configuration along Main Street, including the couplet that circumvents the Flathead County Courthouse.
City leaders and the Flathead County Economic Development Authority have led the efforts to secure a prominent federal transportation grant, only to be disappointed two years in row. This year they applied again, and the communities chosen for the so-called TIGER grant should be announced any day now.
If awarded, the city would use the roughly $10 million to help expedite Kalispell’s Core Area Redevelopment Plan, which includes a first phase that would cost $22 million and the creation of a rail yard and replacing the downtown tracks with a linear park. The dynamic has changed this time around, as one of the two users of the tracks, Northwest Drywall and Roofing Supply, has withdrawn support. Nonetheless, Mayor Mark Johnson mounted a last-minute defense of the project in a letter to federal officials.
Even if the effort to win grant funds fails again, every indication suggests city and county officials will still move forward with the plan to reshape Kalispell by encouraging investment, reconnecting centrally located streets, and adding open space to the city.
The couplet’s fate is more dependent on the opinions of local and state officials than money. Administrators at the Montana Department of Transportation have long wanted to address the stretch of road adjacent to the historic courthouse on downtown’s south end, a road that squeezes to winding single lanes on each side of the building.
Most agree the area is a congested traffic hazard, but how to change it has divided city and county officials. Flathead County commissioners have voiced unanimous support for removing the road on the west side of the courthouse and adding four lanes of north and southbound traffic on the east side. But some city councilors and staffers have balked at the idea. Business owners have also expressed concern about increasing the number of lanes, which could hamper efforts to reduce traffic volume on Main Street.
MDT says improvements must be made. With the bypass’ final phase underway, it’s easier to argue for fewer lanes, which could produce a quieter city center. Either way, this is truly a transformative moment.
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