Opinion

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Reporter's Notebook

The Future of Roads

Everybody has a stake in the safety and efficiency of transportation infrastructure

If there’s a magic word to stimulate robust conversation on the Beacon’s Facebook page, it’s “roundabout.” Two other words similarly stoke the public-forum fires: “West Reserve.” You could extend those categories more broadly to traffic, road repairs and general transportation.

And that makes sense: There’s arguably no truer democratic institution than the public roadway. All people, of all backgrounds, share the roads. As taxpayers, we all pay for their construction, maintenance and alterations. We are expected to abide by common laws, enacted by legislators we elect.

Our very lives, in fact, routinely depend on complete strangers in ways they don’t anywhere else, and vice-versa. Roads aren’t luxuries. They’re absolute necessities to execute our daily lives, especially in the wide-open spaces of Montana.

As such, everybody has a stake in the safety and efficiency of transportation infrastructure, and many people are rightfully eager to voice their thoughts, even those who don’t normally speak up publicly. Case in point: A recent Beacon story about the plan to replace the Foys Lake Road roundabout on the Kalispell Bypass generated, as of Feb. 28, more than 200 comments and nearly 400 reactions on our Facebook page. A different story about safety concerns over Rose Crossing becoming a relief valve for overburdened West Reserve Drive in Kalispell had numerous comments as well.

Flathead County’s transportation infrastructure wasn’t originally built for 100,000 residents and hundreds of thousands of tourists annually. Moreover, we have geographical and institutional limitations, most notably the fact that we don’t have an interstate, and instead have U.S. Highway 93 essentially carrying the load of an interstate.

All of which made the bypass a critical breakthrough, but it obviously isn’t the solution to all our issues. It won’t solve, for instance, West Reserve Drive, which transportation officials have cited as a top priority but doesn’t have allocated funding right now.

There are needs everywhere but only so much available money, which means local and state officials must thoughtfully plot out the future and make difficult decisions that may generate controversy, while prioritizing collaboration among numerous stakeholders. They must also be diligent in exploring alternative funding sources, such as the federal grant paying for most of the bypass overhaul at Foys Lake Road.

Kalispell and Whitefish are currently hammering out long-range transportation plans while factoring in pedestrian- and bike-friendly concepts, including trails, which are increasingly essential. The Whitefish effort updates its master plan from a decade ago, while Kalispell is seeking public input on a 20-year plan that is still in its earliest stages.

Meanwhile, Glacier National Park has a new management plan for the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor that, among many other considerations, identifies ways to alleviate congestion on the road and in parking lots. Eagle Transit is also updating its five-year Flathead County public transportation plan.

Those long-range documents may not specifically fix the potholes in your neighborhood, but they provide crucial big-picture frameworks for addressing our transportation needs.

The area’s ever-increasing popularity, among both tourists and residents, means transportation will remain at the forefront of the public discussion. And while social media has benefits as a forum, it would behoove residents to attend meetings and submit formal comments. You can help pave the road to the future.