Beginning this month, construction will take place on U.S. Highway 93 north of Lakeside to widen the roadway and add a turn lane to access the Flathead Lake Alpine Coaster (FLAC).
The safety improvement project is privately funded by Wilderness Land Holdings, LLC, the developers of the coaster, and the work will be overseen by the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT).
In early June, construction crews will be completing right-of-way shoulder work from just north of Lakeside and just south of Lakeview Drive to widen the roadway to current MDT standards, followed by pavement work to install a northbound left-hand turn lane.
According to Wilderness Land Holdings, LLC, no delays are expected during the first phase of construction from June 1 through June 17. During the installation of the turn lane, estimated to begin June 17, lane closures will be in place and drivers can expect delays of up to 15 minutes.
The coaster sparked controversy in the Lakeside community since its initial announcement following a failed attempt to develop a similar project in Lake County. In 2021, Wilderness Land Holdings owners Jessica and Torsten Wedel requested a change to zoning regulations on a separate 17-acre property in Lake County to allow development of a small adventure park. The Lake County Commission ultimately rejected the zoning change following extensive opposition by county residents. The current property near Lakeside is unzoned. A Change.org petition requesting state agencies conduct an environmental review of the project has more than 1,300 signatures.
The Wedels initially submitted plans to build a gift shop and maintenance shed on the site in early 2022 before it was revealed that they intended to build an alpine coaster on the property. An alpine coaster is a small toboggan-style gravity-powered roller coaster on elevated tracks that is a popular summertime attraction at many mountain resorts. The coaster’s business description with the Lakeside Somers Chamber of Commerce describes it as the “1st and only” alpine coaster in Montana. The “year-around attraction lets you take the adventure, experience and speed into your own hands.”
On April 20, the MDT Transportation Commission held a hearing over several modifications to the state’s highway system, including the Highway 93 project, ultimately approving plans for the turn lane.
During the April hearing, Lakeside residents spoke in opposition to the project, including a representative of the Upper West Shore Alliance, a community group that supports growth while maintaining the area’s rural character, and local elected officials. In addition, more than 100 people provided written public comment.
Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl spoke in favor of the turn lane, calling it necessary to ensure highway safety, but also cautioned the MDT commission to consider tabling the discussion to gain a fuller understanding of the development’s impact. He recommended requiring the developers add a shared-use path along the highway from Lakeside to prevent individuals from walking along the corridor, as well as constructing a turn lane for southbound traffic.
Safety concerns due to increased traffic were echoed by most opponents, including Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside, who cited several known fatalities along that stretch of highway. A 2021 traffic impact study found that peak summer traffic volumes passing the Highway 93 location at nearly 14,000 vehicle trips per day. Documents submitted by the Wedels to the Montana Department of Transportation estimated the coaster would attract between 200 and 300 groups per day.
On May 12, MDT indicated that it had accepted the final construction plans for the project.
Upper West Shore Alliance director Janie Lewer called the approval of the construction plans “alarming” due to a number of exceptions MDT granted for the design, and reaffirmed to the Beacon that the alliance doesn’t believe the corridor can support “a development of this magnitude.”
Jessica Wedel said she hopes for a June 24 opening date for the Flathead Lake Alpine Coaster.
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