Stakeholders support redesignation of busy road

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Traffic builds heading eastbound on West Reserve Drive as it approaches the traffic light at Whitefish Stage Road in Kalispell on Thursday, May 2. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

Stakeholders throughout Flathead County have signed resolutions of support to redesignate West Reserve Drive from a state urban route to a state primary route, which many hope will hit the fast-forward button toward widening the congested two-lane road.

This week the Kalispell City Council and Flathead County commissioners unanimously supported the decision to redesignate the minor arterial, which many officials have described as being in “crisis mode,” as it handles from 17,000 to 20,000 vehicles daily.

“I think everyone agrees this is a much-needed upgrade,” Flathead County Commissioner Pam Holmquist said. “Anyone who has driven that road knows that this redesignation would be a wonderful thing for the county. We [the commissioners] are in total support of it.”

In addition, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President Joe Unterreiner provided letters of support from local chamber members and local lawmakers to the Kalispell Technical Advisory Committee at a public meeting on Thursday. The advisory committee also voted unanimously to support the switch following lengthy discussion at the meeting. Approval from the advisory committee is required for the redesignation and is the final thumbs-up needed before a letter of recommendation is sent to the director of the Montana Department of Transportation, Mike Tooley, and Transportation Commissioner for District 1, Tammi Fisher.

Since West Reserve Drive is classified as a state urban route with the Kalispell Urban Area, any construction upgrades must fall within an allotted $750,000 annual budget. But the 3.5-mile project that would widen the road to a five-lane road and add a new bridge over Stillwater River, among other upgrades, comes with a price tag of about $20 million for the first phase, according to state officials.

That means while pulling from the current $750,000 budget, the first phase of the project, which would tackle the west portion of the road from U.S. 93 to Whitefish Stage, would take more than two decades. However, a redesignation would mean the minor arterial could be supported by a much larger pool of funds and thus, construction could be completed in a more timely manner. When all is said and done, officials say construction of the entire corridor may cost upward of $40 million.

If Fisher and Tooley approve of the redesignation, the state Transportation Commission must still vote on whether or not to add the project to the “red book,” or a budget plan drawn up every five years when officials are determining which projects take priority over others.

However, Ed Toavs, Missoula District administrator, said any time a major multi-million dollar project is inserted into the red book, it generally means something else will be put on hold.

“It’s simple math. When you insert a $20 million project, then $20 million has to be delayed elsewhere,” Toavs said.

Officials are unsure what project could be delayed, should West Reserve Drive be added to the red book, but Toavs said in all of Western Montana, it’s the road the department receives the most complaints about.

He compares it to Russell Street in Missoula, which is currently being widened from a two-lane to a five-lane. For years the state received complaints about Russell Street, which saw similar outlandish traffic counts as West Reserve Drive, and with construction underway on Russell Street, the department has turned its attention toward the similarly busy West Reserve.

According to city and census reports, Kalispell is the second-fastest growing area in Montana and is one of the fastest growing micropolitan areas in the nation. The city grew 42 percent from 2000 to 2010 and is on point to meet estimated growth patterns through 2020 that say it will grow another 25 percent.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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