Opinion

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Uncommon Ground

Transportation Planning

If you think town roads are busy today, just wait another decade

Last summer, Blanchard Lake Road logged over 13,000 vehicles in a single week, according the Flathead County Road Department recorder next to U.S. Highway 93. The highway saw average weekly traffic nearing 150,000 vehicles.

The year of 2012 recorded just over 5,000 weekly users on Blanchard, west of Highway 93, on the county road. In 2002, the weekly vehicle load was 2,000. There is no pedestrian counter, but from what I see, it’s heavily used and ever increasing.

On East Edgewood, another traffic arterial into town, the vehicle count is on par with Blanchard. Both roads are popular places for non-motorized travel. Neither rural place enjoys sidewalks or extended asphalt to better accommodate walking families, exercising runners, or cyclists headed to work.

Both Edgewood and Blanchard coming into Whitefish registered among the busier county roads in the Flathead.

The Flathead is a big place, the second largest county in Montana. It’s also consistently one of the fastest-growing areas statewide. Flathead is similar in size to Connecticut, twice as large as Delaware, and over three times the size of Rhode Island.

An old railroader, long ago, told me that the distance from one end of Montana to the other end of the state is greater on the rail than from Chicago to Washington, D.C.

The New York Times reported that rural roads in central Wisconsin are failing and scant funds are available for repairs. The Times says that a normal lifespan of a road is 30 years and those in central Wisconsin are nearly three quarters of a century old.

The Wisconsin Transportation Information Center indicated that legally loaded trucks could produce over 5,000 times more damage to roads than cars.

Tom Lawrence, a past editor at the Whitefish Pilot, recently wrote in the N’West Iowa REVIEW about how persistent wet weather, large trucks loaded with agricultural products, and lack of local funding options have pounded the rural roads of Iowa into a “perfectly dreadful” situation.

Even in rural places like the Flathead, where the market value of property has grown from $8 billion in 2011 to $19 billion in 2020, there aren’t enough funds available to keep up with the required maintenance for over 1,000 miles of county roads, which are about 40% paved.

Over the past two decades, the county has added over 150 full-time employees to the public workforce, with nearly a quarter of its budget funding public works.

These public employees are busy fixing and maintaining the countywide infrastructure, which in addition to roads includes nearly 300 vehicles, 100 bridges, 700 culverts or guards, and untold guardrails or dikes. They do a good job.

Whitefish is updating its transportation master plan from the previous decade. The plan impacts the future public transportation system. You think town roads are busy today? Wait another decade.

The city plans on engaging the public to ask how people use roads beyond cars, including walking, biking, and public transit.

Whitefish enjoys some of the best recreation trails around. The city has 40 miles of public trail easement permanently in places like Beaver Lake and Haskill Mountain, and licenses biking access at Spencer Mountain. A dozen trailheads surrounding town offer world-class recreational access to tens of thousands of individuals.

Likewise, the city has consistently given good consideration to how people move about town, whether by car, foot, wheelchair, or bike. The sidewalks are safe, the urban trails are great, and hopefully plans include connectivity to rural trails.

Millions of people annually come to the Flathead to recreate, relax, and eat good food. They all want out of the car as soon as possible to get up on the hill, onto the lake or trails, and then back to town to stroll around and spend money.