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Redesignation request part of statewide road review

by Kianna Gardner Daily Inter Lake
| August 2, 2019 2:00 AM

A proposal to redesignate West Reserve Drive in Kalispell from a state urban route to a state primary route — a plan that could expedite funding for improvements to the busy road — is now in the hands of Montana Department of Transportation Director Mike Tooley.

Earlier this year, state highway officials broached the idea of redesignating West Reserve in order to move the road into a different and more highly prioritized funding category, possibly allowing necessary construction on the congested arterial to begin sooner.

The plan, which first surfaced in April, has received solid support from local officials in recent months. The Kalispell Technical Advisory Committee was the first to cast its vote in favor of pursuing the redesignation in May. Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, has described traffic on the road as being at a “crisis level,” and that the chamber is in full support of the redesignation. The Kalispell City Council passed a resolution of support in June.

According to a recent letter from Tooley to Kalispell Planning Director Tom Jentz, chairman of the Technical Advisory Committee, and Unterreiner, the designation change is pending a functional classification review for the entire state.

“Right now the Montana Department of Transportation is in the process of making sure we have all the roads in the state classified correctly,” said Bob Vosen, acting division administrator. “After completion of statewide reviews, which happens regularly, the department will take appropriate action on the request for redesignation [of West Reserve Drive].”

According to Vosen, the state plans to wrap up the review by Jan. 1, 2020. At that time, the redesignation will be considered.

West Reserve Drive is classified as a minor arterial in Kalispell’s state urban route system — a network that falls below many systems on Montana’s transportation funding ladder that includes interstate highways and primary and secondary highways. With this current classification, the state can only allot about $750,000 annually to construction.

But the first phase of the highly anticipated reconstruction of West Reserve, which includes widening much of the arterial from a two-lane to a five-lane road, among other upgrades, is estimated to cost about $20 million.

According to Tooley’s letter, with the road’s current minor arterial classification, it is already eligible to be part of the state primary highway system, which would allow construction costs to be pulled from a larger pot of money.

The potential change, however, is only the first step toward getting the construction of West Reserve underway and is not a guarantee of immediate project initiation.

According to Tooley’s letter, “While MDT diligently manages cash to ensure expenditures fall within available funds, needs are outpacing resources. Any potential project from a redesignation will become part of MDT’s planning and prioritizing for the future of the Missoula District and the state.”

Vosen elaborated, saying just because West Reserve is likely to join the state primary highway system, it does not mean the funds available for distribution in that particular category will increase.

“We have a certain amount of money for the roads in the state primary program and if we add more and more roads, the pot of money doesn’t get bigger, we just have to divvy it out among more roads,” Vosen said. “It has to compete with other projects for funding. And if we move this project to the top, some other community loses their project.”

Ed Toavs, former Missoula District administrator for the Department of Transportation, said in a recent interview the road received the most public complaints in all of Northwest Montana and that it has been on the state’s check-off construction list for years. About 17,000 to 20,000 vehicles utilize West Reserve Drive every day and officials say the worn-out road can no longer support the Flathead Valley’s rapid growth.

The final decision regarding the redesignation, which is still months away, will be made by the Montana Transportation Commissioner and the Federal Highway Administration.

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