Design options narrowed for courthouse couplet

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A RECENT photo of the U.S. 93 couplet around the Flathead County Courthouse in downtown Kalispell. (Photo courtesy of Birds Eye of Big Sky)

A four-lane highway design identified 23 years ago as the preferred alternative for the U.S. 93 couplet around the Flathead County Courthouse continues to be among the top design options, a traffic engineer said Feb. 9.

That design option provides two travel lanes in each direction north of 13th Street East, with center turn lanes at major intersections. Traffic used to be two lanes in each direction, but several years ago the state limited traffic to one lane in each direction around the courthouse.

Traffic officials have spent the past year paring down a list of eight options for the couplet and presented the top three picks to the county commissioners. The same presentation will be given at the Kalispell City Council work session on Monday.

Rerouting the highway to the east side of the courthouse — an idea supported by the commissioners — is not among the improvement options but remains a distant possibility as the design phase of the U.S. 93 couplet rebuild moves forward.

“The couplet itself is historic in nature, so how do we deviate from that?” Scott Randall, a traffic engineer with Robert Peccia and Associates said during his presentation.

If the highway design deviates from alternatives posed in the 1994 environmental impact study, that document would need to be re-evaluated, he said.

“The eastern route (funneling all traffic to the east side of the courthouse) has not fallen by the wayside,” he noted. “We just know there are challenges” with that potential design option.

Funding for U.S. 93 couplet from Seventh to 13th Street is not yet in sight. Funding obligations for National Highway System projects are set past 2020 already.

“There’s no dedicated funding yet,” Randall said.

In addition to the 1994 preferred alternative, the state Department of Transportation is advancing two other options. One of those options establishes a uniform roadway on Main Street with one travel lane in each direction and center lanes at major intersections. The other top option also calls for one lane in each direction but includes improvements to Willow Glen Drive to increase capacity.

The couplet is the final leg of the U.S. 93 Somers to Whitefish West project that has been underway for well over two decades.

Randall stepped the commissioners through traffic count data that shows about 19,000 vehicle trips per day on the south end of the couplet area and roughly 17,000 vehicles daily through the couplet. By 2040 those traffic counts bump up to 25,000 and 21,350, respectively.

The recently completed U.S. 93 bypass is serving its intended function, Randall said, but there will be continuing demand on U.S. 93 through downtown Kalispell. Restricting traffic to one lane around each side of the courthouse wouldn’t push any more traffic onto the bypass, he added.

While the commissioners continue to favor an eastside route to make the county campus more pedestrian-friendly, all three indicated support for the four-lane option.

“The numbers say we need four lanes,” Commissioner Gary Krueger said.

The four-lane option presents pedestrian challenges, however, they agreed.

“I believe we should be able to walk here without dodging traffic,” Krueger said.

The state intends to gather a committee of local stakeholders to further work on challenges connected to the couplet rebuild. Among those challenges are funding, local support, environmental considerations, right of way acquisition and re-evaluation of the project under the National and Montana Environmental Policy Acts.

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

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