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Evergreen sidewalk effort deserves unanimous support

by Daily Inter Lake
| April 16, 2023 12:00 AM

With all due respect to Shel Silverstein, the sidewalk will not end in Evergreen.

Thanks to a dedicated contingent of community leaders from this unincorporated area of Flathead County, a long-standing effort to build sidewalks along U.S. 2 is marching forward into its next phase.

The groups behind the effort are seeking a grant with the Montana Department of Transportation to construct a half-mile stretch of sidewalk north of Evergreen Junior High School. Evergreen earned a $1 million grant in 2021 to build sidewalks from the old Kmart to the school.

The goal of the second phase is to further establish a safe route to the school for students. Without the sidewalk, kids are forced onto the highway shoulder — an obviously dangerous scenario along the busy thoroughfare that averages some 20,000 vehicles per day.

The Evergreen School District is sponsoring the grant application on behalf of the Evergreen Community Partners and the Evergreen Chamber of Commerce.

“We have an opportunity to create a solution to a public safety issue,” said Sarah Stahlberg, with Evergreen Community Partners.

Last week, those groups asked the Flathead County commissioners for their support by signing a letter stating that if the grant is awarded, the county would agree to facilitate tax districts to match funding for construction and for maintenance. Affected property owners have shown support for the sidewalk project and the associated tax impacts.

Commissioners Randy Brodehl and Brad Abell agreed to sign the endorsement letter, while Commissioner Pam Holmquist, who actually represents the Evergreen district, declined. Holmquist said that she isn’t willing to move forward until phase 1 is finalized, expressing concern that Evergreen may not be able to complete the first phase if construction bids come in too far above engineering estimates.

“I’m a little hesitant to move on to phase 2 when we don’t even know where that’s going,” she said about final costs.

But the phase 1 budget indicates otherwise.

According to Evergreen Community Partners, phase 1 has come in well below estimates — about $250,000 under budget — and already includes a $120,000 contingency. And the group has secured another $50,000 donation.

“We have a quarter of a million dollar buffer,” said TJ Wendt, with the partners.

Why is Holmquist suggesting phase 1 could be on shaky financial ground when there is no evidence that is the case?

The commissioner also has to understand that this isn’t a luxury project or a shiny new building. It’s basic infrastructure that will provide critical public safety for school children. This is exactly what a traditional, conservative government is supposed to stand for, particularly when it’s a project her constituents have asked for.

What’s more, Evergreen is right to pursue these grant dollars now. As Stahlberg correctly points out, funding that’s available today could dry up tomorrow. It’s best to move forward while the dough is on the table.

“If we don’t apply for this now, it’s going to be another two years before we can even apply, and that’s if the grant program is funded again in the future,” Stahlberg warned.

Thankfully, a majority of the commissioners recognize the dire need and deep community support to finally get this project across the finish line, even as their colleague from Evergreen is left standing on the wrong side of the sidewalk on this issue.