Federal Grant Would Bring Bypass One Step Closer to Completion

Kalispell and MDT officials feel project is strong candidate for funding, which would remove Foys Lake roundabout and expand two-lane stretch to four lanes

By Myers Reece
The U.S. Highway 93 bypass. Beacon File Photo

The Kalispell U.S. Highway 93 Alternate Route, known as the bypass, is the Montana Department of Transportation’s largest single road construction project ever, building a new stretch of highway in an era when such an undertaking is rare and providing a traffic relief valve in the most populated area in Montana to not have an interstate.

Decades in the making, with discussions of an alternate Kalispell route dating back to the 1940s and 1950s, the bypass has cost $135 million to date, counting right-of-way securements, utility relocation, design and planning, and construction. LHC, a Kalispell construction firm, was awarded a $34 million contract to build the final northern section, which was the largest MDT infrastructure contract in history.

Funding has primarily come from three sources: federal earmarks championed by Montana’s U.S. congressional delegation, beginning with U.S. Sens. Conrad Burns and Max Baucus in the 1990s and early 2000s; the Obama-era American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; and national highway funding allocated to the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT), according to Ed Toavs, the MDT’s western district administrator.

The sum of all those parts is a project unlike any Toavs has seen in his lengthy career in transportation.

“In my career to this day, we’ve received more positive comments on the north side than with any project I’ve been affiliated with,” he said. “But then the question we always get is, ‘When will the south end be done?’”

Indeed, the bypass isn’t finished, not completely. It’s been open to traffic since October 2016, but the plan has always been to convert the southern section into a four-lane roadway with overpass interchanges instead of roundabouts. That would bring it up to speed with the northern section, which is fully complete.

The city of Kalispell and Montana Department of Transportation, along with partners and supporters, are now hoping to secure funding that would bring them one step closer to full build-out by completing a 1.9-mile stretch between the Ashley Creek bridge and the southern tip of the sound wall. The often-congested Foys Lake roundabout will be removed and replaced with an overpass interchange with ramps, meaning Foys Lake Road will go over the bypass.

Acting as lead agency, the city of Kalispell plans to submit an application in conjunction with the MDT on July 16 for federal Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grants, which replaced the TIGER grant program. The application is due July 19, but Katharine King, the city’s assistant director of community development, said the applicants don’t want to leave anything to chance and want to be ahead of the deadline.

The city and MDT held a public open house to discuss the project and grant at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce on July 10.

Under the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan, $1.5 billion in discretionary BUILD grants is available, triple the amount of last year’s $500 million TIGER grant allocation. While that means more money is on the table, it also means more projects will be vying for it, King said.

The hope is to secure $15 million in BUILD dollars for the $20 million. The other $5 million will come from national highway funding through the MDT. Grant awardees will be named no later than Dec. 19. If the bypass is chosen, Toavs said bidding for design-build contract will begin immediately, with the hopes of breaking ground by fall of 2019 and completion by the end of 2019.

“That is really fast in the world of transportation,” he said.

While Toavs acknowledges that the competition for the national funding is fierce, he and city officials feel the bypass has a strong case, thanks to demonstrated need with supporting data, shovel-readiness and proven partnerships that suggest streamlined cooperation across numerous entities.

To back Toavs’ cooperation assertion, 15 Northwest Montana chambers of commerce, tourism bureaus, downtown associations and economic development groups sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on June 27 voicing their support for the bypass to receive federal funding.

“The full-build completion of the Kalispell Bypass will have significant and positive transportation system impacts for all of Northwest Montana,” the letter stated. “The improvement of this facility will have major safety and quality of life improvements for commercial traffic, residents and visitors alike.”

The bypass has fundamentally altered Northwest Montana’s traffic flow and arterial roadway composition, impacting residents in each of the area’s communities, as well as industry and tourism, as demonstrated by usage statistics that are far exceeding prediction models. For instance, pre-construction estimates pegged traffic flow along the Foys Lake stretch at 16,000-18,000 cars per day by 2040. It’s already reached that number, and is higher in certain areas on the north side.

“We’re basically 22 years ahead of our predictions,” Toavs said, noting the difficulty in building prediction models for a road that didn’t yet exist.

“We have congestion now and it’s only going to get worse,” he added.

In addition to safety and time-saving benefits for motorists, while rerouting cars out of downtown, the bypass has had widespread economic ripple effects, according to a study authored by Toavs and University of Idaho professor Steve Peterson. Their initial report, released last year, said the route’s gross economic impact over the life of its construction, from 2001-2016, was $1.12 billion, including new residential and commercial development, sales and wages associated with 760 jobs a year. Toavs said that number has been updated to $1.4 billion.

Both Toavs and city officials acknowledge that members of the public frequently question why the whole project wasn’t completed to full build-out from the beginning, but they say it wasn’t possible due to funding. To get the project off the ground, there were only enough dollars available through the American Recovery Act to construct the southern section as two lanes with roundabouts.

But building the two-lane stretch allowed the project to begin in earnest, paving the way, literally and figuratively, for the north end’s completion with national highway funds later. The north section had multiple phases, including the Hutton Ranch loop, which many people aren’t aware is part of the bypass system.

A full bypass wouldn’t solve all the region’s traffic congestion, and Toavs acknowledged hearing frequent comments about the Reserve Street stretch between Highway 93 and U.S. Highway 2, which he said is the second busiest two-way street in Western Montana behind a stretch of Russell Street in Missoula.

Noting that the busy section of Reserve Street is distinct from the bypass project, Toavs said the department is trying to find funding to address the congestion there, with the eventual goal of turning it into a five-lane — four lanes with a turning lane — roadway.

The next step for the bypass after the Foys Lake section will be completing the final southern stretch down to its intersection with Highway 93, which includes securing final right-of-ways.

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