MDT Asks For Community Input on Future of U.S. 93 in Whitefish

Consultants hope to make recommendation this fall

By Justin Franz
Downtown Whitefish. Beacon file photo

As more people and vehicles descend on downtown Whitefish, the Montana Department of Transportation is seeking public input on how it can improve traffic flow through the downtown area.

MDT has hired a Helena-based consultant, Robert Peccia & Associates, to conduct what it’s calling the Downtown Whitefish Highway Study. On March 5, MDT and the consultant held an open house at Whitefish City Hall to gather input from the public about how it wants to see the highway improved through the core area.

“The community of Whitefish has worked hard to make its downtown something very special,” said Bob Vosen, Missoula district administrator with the Montana Department of Transportation. “The increasing traffic volumes in this corridor are a significant concern, both from the standpoint of preserving community character and ensuring safety for all users.”

Traffic along the U.S. 93 corridor in Whitefish has increased dramatically in the last two decades, which is having a spillover effect on nearby Baker Avenue. During the town hall meeting, MDT highlighted the number of accidents on both Spokane Avenue (U.S. Highway 93) and Baker. Between 2014 and 2018, there were 99 crashes on those two roads between downtown and the intersection near Safeway (13th Street).

In addition to car crashes, there have also been collisions involving bikes and pedestrians. Traffic and pedestrian counts are greatly impacted by the increase of summer visitors. According to MDT, there is a 35% increase in vehicle traffic in August compared to November and a 355% increase in pedestrian traffic during that same time. Over the past 10 years, there has been a 12% increase in traffic in the downtown area.

Since the early 1990s, U.S. Highway 93 through Whitefish has been the subject of numerous studies at the state and local level and RPA Project Manager Scott Randall said all of those studies had different focuses and conclusions. The purpose of this year’s effort will be to combine those past efforts with public input to come up with the best plan moving forward.

“We really want to build on past work,” he said. “And we want to see what is most important to the community.”

Among the options considered in the past have been to add additional lanes to Spokane and Baker that encourage directional traffic. For example, in one configuration one road would have two northbound lanes and one southbound lane and the other would have two southbound lanes and one northbound lane. The configuration would increase traffic flow through town while maintaining business access.

During the open house, the public was able to leave notes about what was important to them and put beans in jars indicating their priorities, from business access to walking space. Randall said there are constraints — both physical and financial — and the eventual recommendation will have to balance different priorities.

“We can’t get everything we want,” he said, “But there are a lot of options on the table.”

Officials plan to hold another public meeting in the fall that will look at specific options for downtown Whitefish and they hope to have a feasibility study completed by December.

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