Guest Column

Highway Plan Will Decrease Safety and Exacerbate Traffic Woes

I am not anti-change as some who oppose this initiative are, but I cannot support a plan that will make Whitefish streets less safe

By Nathan Dugan

The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) touts its “Vision Zero” for zero deaths and zero serious injuries on Montana roads, however, its preferred concept for the Downtown Whitefish Highway Study will result in more accidents, worse traffic problems, and pedestrian injuries and deaths.

All potential new solutions studied by MDT would add an extra travel lane to Baker Avenue and/or Spokane Avenue between Second Street and 13th Street, directly between Whitefish’s downtown core and its residential neighborhoods. Its preferred concept would make both Baker and Spokane three-lane highways with 12-foot wide lanes. Adding an extra lane will do nothing to alleviate traffic through Downtown Whitefish. 

These solutions do nothing to address the left-hand turn onto Second Street from Spokane and the two traffic lights on Second Street through downtown, which is the true bottleneck. A second northbound lane on Spokane will have the unintended consequence of significant traffic increases along Spokane to Railway Street. Lost and confused visitors will begin to highly traffic this area, directly in front of the Whitefish Middle School where children frequently cross the street, and will inevitably attempt to turn left onto Baker from both First Street and Railway Street in a feeble attempt to get back on course. 

Southbound traffic on Spokane and northbound traffic on Baker wishing to turn left to take children to school or to go home will now need to turn across two lanes of oncoming traffic. Traffic on the numbered streets downtown wishing to continue straight will need to cross three lanes of opposing traffic. MDT reported 99 traffic accidents in the study area between 2014 and 2018, about 20 per year. These proposed changes will result in an increased number of traffic accidents, which will be more costly and severe.

Let’s discuss pedestrian safety. It is not uncommon for pedestrians to cross Spokane and Baker to access downtown. It may not be most convenient to cross at a crosswalk, and people tend to do what is most convenient even if it isn’t the safest option. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed an increase in time for vehicles to stop to allow pedestrians to cross in recent years, even when there are flashing lights indicating that a pedestrian is in the crosswalk. Adding an additional lane of vehicle traffic will continue to make this trend worse. 

A WHO report on pedestrian safety in roadway design is blunt. “Road widening increases pedestrian injury risk,” and “reducing the number of lanes appears to improve traffic safety … vehicles travel more slowly when streets are narrow.” Increased road and lane width increases vehicle speed, regardless of the posted speed limit. For a practical example, think of the last time you drove through Downtown Kalispell, where the posted speed limit is 25 mph. If you’re like me, it’s difficult to drive that slow, even if you have no intention of speeding due to the large size of the road in that area. Widening Spokane and Baker will encourage higher vehicle speeds through Downtown Whitefish. 

I am not anti-change as some who oppose this initiative are, but I cannot support a plan that will make Whitefish streets less safe and do nothing to address the traffic issues that it seeks to address, and in all likelihood will make traffic issues worse. I would like to see Spokane and Baker remain largely the same, that is to say, two lanes. The solution that is the most logical and safe, in that case, is simple. Spokane would be converted to one-way northbound and Baker would be converted to one-way southbound. This would make it possible to turn left again on all streets in the studied area and make vehicle and pedestrian crossings generally easier and safer as there would be only one direction of traffic to account for on both thoroughfares. However, one-way streets do have a separate set of potential safety issues, and this may not be the best overall plan.

If MDT is hellbent on adding a third lane to both Spokane and Baker, the safest option that will actually help to improve the flow of traffic is to keep one lane in each direction dedicated to travel, with a dedicated center turn lane to allow vehicles to turn left to utilize parallel streets for downtown access or to easily access their homes without needing to drive to a traffic light. Though I do not like the idea of having two three-lane highways directly through Downtown Whitefish, this option would actually address traffic woes. 

The above options were not even considered by MDT’s team, and it is doubtful that they would be considered at this late stage. Of the alternatives that were advanced for further consideration, Option G is the best option for Whitefish. Comments can be submitted at https://www.mdt.mt.gov/pubinvolve/downtownwhitefish/documents.shtml.