We don’t have to go out on much of a limb to predict that traffic — and how to route it through Kalispell — will be a burning issue over the next several years. As the city continues to grow at the fringes and redevelopment of the core area gets underway, Kalispell is most certainly at a crossroad.
It’s a challenge for cities such as Kalispell that have a major highway flowing through downtown. Should it be a thoroughfare that efficiently gets motorists from Point A to Point B? Or should the city create a more pedestrian-friendly Main Street?
Kalispell’s city leaders already have decided the best approach is to slow down traffic with fewer lanes through downtown when U.S. 93 is reconstructed at some point in the not too distant future. The city’s new downtown plan supports a step-back-in-time approach, even showing a photograph of downtown Kalispell in the 1940s with throngs of pedestrians going to and fro.
The city’s preference for two lanes, along with a turn lane, is contrary to the state’s preferred option of a four-lane rebuild through Kalispell. Flathead County has a stake in the issue because the highway wraps around the historic courthouse in the form of a divided couplet, currently one lane on each side. The county commissioners favor four lanes, and have said as much in a letter to Kalispell officials, asking the city to “abandon any plans that have the potential to degrade” connectivity and efficiency.
The commissioners really want the highway rerouted entirely to the east side of the courthouse in order to unify the county campus into one walkable area, but have been advised that design option comes with big challenges.
Government agencies aside, we wonder what the public thinks? We’re getting an earful from drivers still reeling from switching Third and Fourth Avenues on the city’s east side to two-lane traffic. Sure, the idea is to get people to take a different route, but that doesn’t happen overnight after designating those streets as one-ways for decades. Perhaps the city should have waited until another north-south arterial could be further developed, such as Willow Glen Drive.
During a meeting with engineers earlier this year, the commissioners learned that creating an east-side bypass on Willow Glen Road and turning Kalispell’s First Avenues east and west into one-way streets are among the alternatives traffic engineers have identified for rebuilding U.S. 93 around the Flathead County Courthouse. It seems reasonable the conversion of the east-side one-ways could have waited until these other alternatives can be further explored.
One need only to drive through north Kalispell to know how important traffic flow is. The city raced to keep up with burgeoning commercial growth and quite frankly there are many shortcomings in the city’s road system on that side of town. Increasing capacity on West Reserve Drive will be another crucial project in the city’s overall traffic scheme.
It goes without saying, but Kalispell’s success in creating a workable transportation network will depend on a collaborative effort that includes the city, county and state, and we urge all sides to work together.