Courthouse couplet still a conundrum

State reveals new U.S. 93 options

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State highway officials on Thursday unveiled more options for widening U.S. 93 from 13th Street to just north of the Flathead County Courthouse couplet, and one thing’s clear from the newest design plans: Something’s got to give.

Whether it’s the county commissioners’ building, the MSU Extension Service quarters and county mail room, mature trees lining the highway or neighboring businesses remains to be seen. The bottom line is that there just isn’t enough room to expand the highway and still keep everything in place.

One of the latest options — admittedly an “out-of-the-box idea,” Department of Transportation Preconstruction Engineer Shane Stack told the commissioners — is to route all four lanes to the east side around the couplet. That particular option “would have a higher land impact to private citizens,” Stack said. It would take out the McGarvey law office building and other neighboring businesses.

Another option spares the commissioners’ building on the west side but takes out the line of trees. Some of the older trees are diseased or dying, but removing them will affect the aesthetics of the tree canopy that circles the courthouse, District Construction Engineer Ed Toavs said.

The root systems of trees “always will be at risk” during street reconstruction projects such as this one, no matter how careful construction workers are, Toavs added.

Stack asked the commissioners to consider how they want the property on the outsides of the couplet developed and whether landscaping or parking would be the highest priority.

The couplet project still is several years away, probably in the 2013 to 2014 range, Stack said. But if more federal stimulus money becomes available, “this project could become fundable in a matter of a year,” he said.

It’s the last remaining piece of U.S. 93 expansion from Somers to Whitefish.

Highway officials have wrestled with the couplet conundrum for more than seven years. Even though the south half of the Kalispell bypass will become a reality next year, U.S. 93 through town still needs to accommodate large truck traffic around the historic courthouse.

The state essentially has scrapped its first three design options because larger trucks wouldn’t be able to handle the curves.

State officials also acknowledged from the get-go that acquiring the property needed to widen the highway will be expensive.

And if either or both of the annex buildings that flank the main courthouse are removed, the county needs to have a plan in place to relocate the commissioners.

Five years ago the commissioners sent a letter to the state, saying they were willing to negotiate the right-of-way sale and building removal with the Department of Transportation.

 Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by e-mail at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com

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