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Planning key to solve looming Flathead traffic crunch

Posted at 8:32 AM, Dec 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-21 10:41:41-05

KALISPELL – You’ve probably been there; stuck in traffic on North Reserve in Kalispell.

While that situation improved after the Kalispell Bypass opened, traffic volumes are already starting to build again — and it’s all driven by the Flathead’s rapid growth.

When the Kalispell Bypass opened it brought immediate relief of the flow of traffic going through the heart of the city.

Another major improvement came this week, as the Montana Department of Transportation replaced one of the most dangerous bridges in the state, the new South Fork Bridge on US Highway 2, the latest on the list of significant construction the past decade.

While those improvements have been fantastic over the past decade, planners are already starting to worry about the future. They say with the projected growth in the Flathead it could become very hard to move across this valley in another 20 years.

“Flathead County is going to be 150, 160,000 people or more. And how is the state highway system going to handle it?” said Montana Department of Transportation District Administrator Ed Toavs.

“And I would argue that it is going to be one of the more challenging questions to answer into the future is: How we are going to handle — both preserving a safe system for roads and bridges? Which is our top priority — but also handling the capacity and the expansion needs, like on West Reserve that we see today,” he added.

West Reserve is now the “bypass to the bypass”, with thousands of drivers using it as a shortcut across the north side of Kalispell. It’s the best example of the Flathead traffic crunch to come.

“West Reserve carries 20,000 cars a day. Except for Russell Street in Missoula, that’s the highest two-lane volume that we see in Western Montana,” Toavs pointed out.

“And the only reason it isn’t higher is because it’s pretty much at capacity and really can’t take any more. We know that needs to be a five lane. But to do that all the way from US 93 to US 2 is $40 million — [that] is what our guesstimate is.”

If you start guessing, you realize the bill to keep people moving will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“And there are other needs. We still have to finish the Bypass. There’s other roads in the urban area. And that’s again just one area. You know, downtown Whitefish, what to do on 4th Street in Columbia Falls,” Toavs told MTN News.”

It’s driven by the Flathead’s growth. Things cooled off during the recession, but now the pace is probably stronger than before, with new commercial development, subdivisions and hotels serving residents and more Glacier visitors alike.

The projections show roads in the Flathead will be well over capacity in just 20 years.

“A lot of the roadways turn ‘red’ in the Kalispell area, including the Bypass,  Highway 93 through Kalispell, Highway 2 through Kalispell, West Reserve,” Toavs told MTN News.

“And what ‘red’ means that you’re at least 50-percent traffic volume over the roadway’s capacity. And that’s not where you want to be. That’s a bad place to be,” he explained.

Toavs says MDT is starting to meet with local planners and decision-makers this month to establish priorities for the next round of construction. That’s something critical in a place without the freeway that helps in Missoula, Bozeman and Billings.

“Kalispell, we’re going to look at an updated transportation plan. Because things have changed, things have been built, growth is happening. And we have some significant issues,” Toavs told MTN News.

“Kalispell’s not the only place. We have Whitefish and Columbia Falls as well, and everything in between. Where the state highway system — usually Highway 2, Highway 93, Montana 40, Montana 35, 206 — they have to carry the burden all traffic types, especially truck traffic. Where in the Missoula area I-90 takes the heavy load off of the system. In the Flathead that’s not the case.”

Toavs is promising that public involvement will be key in that planning, to make sure all ideas are explored.

The current Kalispell Transportation Plan is already a dozen years old and was developed before the Bypass was built.