Many Options But Few Easy Answers for Contentious Courthouse Couplet

Study looks at widening highway or reducing traffic on Kalispell’s Main Street

By Dillon Tabish
U.S. 93 wraps around the Flathead County Courthouse in downtown Kalispell on Sept. 14, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Roughly 17,400 vehicles a day wind around the Flathead County Courthouse on the main thoroughfare of U.S. 93 flowing through downtown Kalispell. Based on historic growth, that number will only continue to increase, creating more congestion in the heart of a city trying to furnish a calmer, more attractive city center.

Among the possible solutions, the highway could be widened to four lanes on each side of the couplet, expanding the flow of traffic. Or Main Street could be reduced to two lanes — one lane on each side of the courthouse or both lanes on one side — to slow traffic. Main Street could even become a one-way route either northbound or southbound.

Eight alternatives have surfaced from a recent study by Robert Peccia and Associates, yet each option comes with its consequences.

By increasing U.S. 93 to four lanes around the courthouse, downtown Kalispell would likely attract a greater deluge of vehicles, including semi trucks. Reducing the main artery to two lanes would only push more vehicles to the neighboring residential streets, primarily First Avenues West and East. Making Main Street a one-way route would not really accomplish much of any goal, project leaders say.

“This all comes down to a philosophical debate: Do you want traffic on (U.S. 93) or do you want to pinch it to the other streets?” Jeff Key, the project leader with Robert Peccia and Associates told a crowd in downtown Kalispell last week during a presentation.

“What’s the community trying to accomplish?”

The Montana Department of Transportation, which funded the study, would like to find an answer sooner than later. So would the City of Kalispell and Flathead County.

All three governmental bodies have differing wishes for the prominent yet troublesome courthouse couplet.

Dating back to 1994, state transportation officials have wanted to expand the highway from Somers to Whitefish to four lanes, and all but the short stretch around the courthouse has been completed. It is the oldest unfinished project on MDT’s books in Western Montana.

The possibility of expanding the highway has fueled concerns within Kalispell’s City Hall, where staff members and city councilors have questioned the potential realignment. City leaders have said the heavy flow of traffic could hamper efforts focused on improving walkability and reducing congestion on Main Street.

Flathead County commissioners have already expressed support for removing the highway lanes on the west side of the courthouse and adding four lanes of north and southbound traffic on the east side. This re-alignment would better connect the campus and provide safer access for employees and residents, county officials say.

Among the differing views, the latest study reinforced a well-known fact among drivers traveling through Kalispell — Main Street is indeed crowded.

“The couplet is at capacity and volume has to go somewhere,” Key said.

According to the recent study, 83 crashes were reported from 2010 to 2014 along the stretch of highway around the courthouse. The majority — 71 percent — were minor multi-vehicles crashes such as rear-end accidents, indicating congestion issues, according to study leaders.

The streets along the corridor mostly received poor grades for their overall level of service, the study said.

“The projected level of service is expected to worsen throughout this study area,” Key said.

Many people believed the development of the U.S. 93 Alternate Route, which will be completed this fall, would alleviate traffic through downtown, but it appears the new bypass is not expected to significantly reduce the number of vehicles, Key said.

Traffic on Main Street has dipped 2 percent over the last five years with the development of the south section of the bypass, but Robert Peccia and Associates’ traffic model shows the growth rate of traffic will pick back up in the ensuing years.

The bypass is expected to draw roughly 15,000 vehicles a day when its initially completed, Key said.

Even with the bypass completed, Kalispell will not be able to eliminate semi trucks and other large vehicles from traveling through downtown because Main Street is also a federally funded highway, according to MDT officials. Regulations prohibit National Highway System routes, such as U.S. 93, from preventing truck traffic.

Project leaders plan to whittle the alternatives down to roughly three choices and then present them to city and county leaders this fall.

“What happens in this corridor really affects your town,” Key said.

For a breakdown of alternatives, visit mdt.mt.gov/pubinvolve/kalispellcourt.

Project leaders are accepting comments on the proposed changes to the courthouse couplet. Comments can be submitted to Robert and Peccia Associates at [email protected] or Robert Peccia and Associates, P.O. Box 5653, 825 Custer Avenue, Helena, Montana 59604.

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