Planes, trains and automobiles U.S. 93 bypass, increased air service highlight transportation upgrades – Daily Inter Lake

When it comes to measuring the tangible economic development of transportation improvements in the Flathead Valley, the U.S. 93 bypass around Kalispell stands head and shoulders above the upgrades seen over the last decade.

Over the life of the project, from 2001 through 2016, the total economic impact of the bypass was $1.21 billion. And the impact continues in a big way, according to Ed Toavs, the Missoula district administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation.

Toavs completed an analysis of the bypass for a masters degree in business administration, and continued to follow its economic impact as the city of Kalispell sought — and recently won — a $12.75 million federal grant to convert roughly 2 miles of the southern half of the bypass into four lanes. The grant also will pay for the removal of the Foy’s Lake roundabout and addition of an interchange at that intersection.

Toavs recently further quantified the economic impacts of the bypass over the past two years and determined new business and residential construction along the bypass added $55 million to the economy in 2017-2018. New firm operations added $12.3 million, for a grand total of $87.5 million in output.

The state is investing heavily in transportation improvements in Flathead County, to the tune of $110 million over the next five years, through 2022.

Montana 206 is in the hopper for a major upgrade that’s targeted for construction in 2020 to include time for right-of-way acquisition, Toavs said. The work will include shoulder widening, slope flattening and general highway safety improvements.

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The last phase of the U.S. 93 Whitefish West project, from Mountainside Drive in Whitefish to mile marker 133 past the Twin Bridge Road intersection, is getting closer to reality, Toavs said. “We’re doing pretty well on right-of-way acquisition, and we’re trying to close a couple difficult parcels.”

The traffic congestion on West Reserve Drive is one of the Flathead’s biggest transportation concerns. Local and state officials are trying to figure out a funding solution to create a five-lane road from Home Depot to the Whitefish Stage Road intersection as the first phase. Eventually a five-lane road would extend west to U.S. 2. Funding likely would come from a combination of state bridge funds and Kalispell urban highway funding.

West Reserve currently has the highest traffic count in western Montana for a two-lane road, at 20,000 cars a day.

Air transportation has climbed to new heights in the Flathead Valley, with a terminal expansion on the horizon and continued expansion of flight service at Glacier Park International Airport.

A three-year expansion plan for Glacier Park International Airport aimed at accommodating burgeoning visitation growth and meeting local flight demands potentially will add 40,000 square feet to the airport terminal by the end of 2022, Airport Director Rob Ratkowski recently told the Daily Inter Lake.

The expansion is the focal point for the Flathead Municipal Airport Authority’s 20-year master plan for the long-term development of the airport.

Passenger counts are on track to break the 300,000 mark for 2018, a roughly 50 percent increase over 2013. Last year also saw a record number of 270,000 outgoing passengers.

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Current growth estimates, according to Ratkowski, indicate that 15 years from now, Glacier Park International could see passenger volumes that rival Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, the busiest airport in the state.

Plans for the expanded airport include more space for all aspects of the terminal, from ticketing to security to baggage claim, with a goal of improving a little of everything, Ratkowski said.

Air service at Glacier Park International Airport continues to improvement. Earlier this month American Airlines announced three new daily flights next summer servicing Glacier Park International Airport. The new routes include Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The flights were secured through the work of the Glacier Airline Enhancement and Retention Outreach (AERO) organization, which has had success partnering with community members and businesses to raise money to back a minimum revenue guarantee for airlines willing to take the risk of offering new flights to and from Glacier Park International.

Eagle Transit bus service likewise has seen improvements in recent years. In July the bus service — offered through the Flathead County Agency on Aging — reconfigured the Kalispell service into a figure-eight route, with two loops meeting at a new transfer station at the Gateway Community Center.

Eagle Transit also has established an effective shuttle service in Glacier National Park during the summer months, offering seven-day-a-week bus service to and from Glacier during peak summer months.

BNSF Railway Co. was on track to invest $135 million in its Montana railroad network in 2018, topped with upgrades to the 7-mile-long Flathead Tunnel near Trego.

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The investment in Montana is part of an overall $3.3 billion BNSF was projected to spend in 2018 on its 32,500-mile nationwide network. The railroad company operates on more than 1,900 miles of track in Montana.

Over the past five years, BNSF has invested approximately $850 million to expand and maintain its network in Montana, according to BNSF. This year, the maintenance program in Montana has included approximately 820 miles of track surfacing and/or undercutting work as well as the replacement of nearly 60 miles of rail and about 200,000 ties. Multiple projects were scheduled on the Kootenai River Subdivision, which runs between Sandpoint, Idaho and Whitefish. BNSF signalized various sidings on the subdivision between Sandpoint and Whitefish to enable Centralized Traffic Control and make improvements to the Flathead Tunnel.

News Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or


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