Kalispell’s Downtown Street Fight

City leaders reaffirm support for reduced traffic lanes on Main Street, setting up showdown with state transportation agency, county commission

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

Kalispell city officials are digging their heels in and plan to officially affirm their support for traffic changes along Main Street, a move that seeks to improve downtown but would stand in stark contrast to the Flathead County Commission and Montana Department of Transportation.

The Kalispell City Council is slated to vote on a resolution of intent at its Oct. 16 meeting that would formally declare its support for an updated vision for downtown, including reduced traffic lanes on Main Street.

City leaders and planners have previously avowed their support for a new strategy that is several years in the making and is based on community input and surveys, as well as a traffic study that predicts worsening vehicle congestion along Main Street in the years ahead. The plan calls for reducing U.S. Highway 93 through downtown from four traffic lanes to two lanes with a center turn lane in an effort to reduce congestion and improve walkability among storefronts. It also recommends keeping two lanes of traffic around the Flathead County Courthouse instead of following the state’s recommendation of expanding to four lanes around the so-called couplet.

“We are not trying to slow traffic down and squeeze it down to a crawl,” Tom Jentz, Kalispell’s planning director, said at an Oct. 9 work session in City Hall. “Statistics will show that a three-lane road will carry traffic as well as a four-lane road, but it does it safer.”

As an example, Jentz cited the section of road south of the courthouse between 13th and 9th streets that leads into downtown with two lanes and a center turn lane.

“Does anyone complain about 13th Street to the courthouse? It’s a three-lane road and it functions well,” Jentz said.

Jentz also cited a recent traffic study that predicted traffic on Main Street would significantly increase from its 2015 estimate of 16,570 vehicles per day and create a scenario that harms downtown commerce and safety.

“A four-lane couplet will allow Main Street to go from 16,000 vehicles today to 30,000 in 20 years,” Jentz said. “With 30,000 vehicles, downtown will cease to exist as it does today.”

The concerns within City Hall — and proposed solution — clash with the county and MDT’s stance.

Dating back to 1994, the state transportation department has planned to expand the highway from Somers to Whitefish to four lanes, and all but the short stretch around the courthouse is completed. It is the oldest unfinished project on MDT’s books in Western Montana. MDT officials say the four-lane format creates an effective flow of traffic that is justified by traffic analyses.

In August, the three county commissioners — Phil Mitchell, Pam Holmquist and Gary Krueger — sent a letter to the city of Kalispell siding with MDT and stating their opposition to reduced traffic lanes on Main Street.

“We encourage Kalispell officials to abandon any plans that have the potential to degrade the connectivity, efficiency and safety of highways, streets and roads within Flathead County,” the commissioners wrote.

Members of the Kalispell City Council have criticized the Flathead commissioners for neglecting invitations to attend public meetings to discuss the matter and seek a long-term solution.

Kalispell Mayor Mark Johnson penned a letter that is slated to be sent to the commission on Oct. 20, stating, “We view this issue as an adaptive problem requiring an adaptive solution. This requires people being willing to sit at the table, challenge assumptions, consider different perspectives, modify previous beliefs, and broaden the vision to include long-term impacts to the solution.”

Johnson raised concerns about the projected congestion through downtown and increased traffic at the intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and U.S. 93, “for which there is no proposed solution,” the mayor said.

Johnson told the Beacon he agrees with Jentz’s assessment that outsized traffic congestion in downtown would cause serious harm to businesses. He cited city data that shows downtown properties are valued at $3.3 million per acre and raised concerns about that value being degraded by worsening traffic conditions.

“We have to protect these tax bases and improve them. The people in outlying areas, like the county, have their own particular individual interests, but we have the interests of the community as a whole,” Johnson said.

“I think if you go to four lanes and double that traffic downtown, you will see massive vacancies … It will get worse downtown, largely because of the traffic.”

MDT officials predict a different outcome.

Ed Toavs, regional administrator for the state transportation agency, said he understands the city’s desire to improve downtown but disagrees with the approach of reducing traffic lanes.

“We want (Kalispell) to be successful, but if you gridlock traffic, nobody wins,” he said.

Kalispell officials are hoping MDT will revisit the 1994 environmental impact statement that calls for four lanes through downtown and update its review of the bypass, factoring in traffic patterns now that the north end is completed.

In 2016, MDT commissioned the firm Robert Peccia and Associates to study traffic in and around downtown Kalispell as part of the environmental impact statement from 1994. Toavs said previous and current traffic data have factored in the bypass and still support four lanes.

“The result of that analysis was the preferred alternate remains the four-lane configuration as stated in the EIS,” Toavs said. “Through this analysis, we did not find any new information, new impacts, or inaccurate data analysis, which was used in determining the preferred alternative in the EIS. Thus, (the Federal Highway Administration) and MDT will not revisit the EIS except to re-evaluate design details during the design phase.”

Toavs compares the situation facing downtown Kalispell to two examples in Missoula. Brooks Street is a five-lane thoroughfare that slices through a bustling business district, illustrating a successful transportation system, Toavs said. On the other hand, there is a section of West Broadway that was once a four-lane road but was reduced to two lanes with a center turn lane. Now that section of road is frequently backed up with frustrating gridlock that also pushes additional traffic to nearby neighborhood streets, Toavs said.

A Flathead Valley native, Toavs said he hopes the city of Kalispell achieves its goals for downtown but pursues other options besides reduced traffic lanes.

“It’s not that the idea is bad, but you have to validate it with data and numbers and really some judgment as to, ‘Is there a better way to solve it?’” Toavs said.

“It’s a great vision, but it’s got a fatal flaw in it.”

MDT is preparing to begin designing the road update around the courthouse couplet and plans to form a steering committee that will assist the agency with the project.

The Kalispell City Council will vote on its downtown plan on Monday to formally declare its vision for Main Street.

“Our request is that you join us at the table as part of this steering committee, offering input and perspective in a collaborative manner to best accomplish mutual goals,” Mayor Johnson said in his letter to the county.

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