A proposed roundabout west of Kalispell is drawing opposition from local residents and businesses.
The intersection of U.S. 2, Dern Road and West Springcreek Road has been the site of multiple crashes over the years. Last week, the Daily Inter Lake reported that the Montana Department of Transportation is considering installing a roundabout at the spot. Ed Toavs, district administrator for the department’s Missoula office, called it a “traffic calming device.”
But residents and the businesses that operate and rely on large trucks see it as poor planning.
“They’ve made up their minds that they’re going to put roundabouts wherever they want to, whether it interferes with interstate commerce” or not, Barry “Spook” Stang, Motor Carriers of Montana’s executive vice president, told the Daily Inter Lake.
“Trucks won’t use the [U.S. 93] bypass,” he continued, “because they can’t get around the roundabouts.”
John Hansen, safety consultant for the Montana Logging Association, clarified that long-truck drivers “don’t like them. If they don’t have to utilize them, they won’t utilize them.”
A 2009 article in the Institute of Transportation Engineers Journal observed that a truck’s length can indeed make it difficult to pass through a roundabout, and recommended a number of features, such as central “aprons” that trucks can pass over to improve safety.
Toavs told the Daily Inter Lake in an email that “the mountable curbs in newer designs are being designed much flatter,” and therefore easier for trucks to traverse.
However, Stang remains doubtful.
“They keep saying they’re designing the roundabout with a lower apron, but I don’t see it,” he said.
Beyond design specifics, Stang said that the area needs more than a single roundabout.
“They need to look at re-doing that whole 4 or 5-mile stretch of road,” he said.
Rob Smith, project manager at Kalispell’s A2Z Engineering, told the Daily Inter Lake in an email that “Traffic counts over the last five years indicate growth on this roadway.” Average daily traffic at the nearest counting point rose from 8,247 cars in 2011 to 9,931 in 2016.
This trend concerns Laili Komenda, Smith Valley School Principal.
“We need to recognize that we aren’t small-town Montana anymore,” she remarked in an email to the Daily Inter Lake. “We may have to have less access points onto Highway 2 West.”
She and other residents, who voiced their concerns at the Flathead County Commissioners’ meeting Monday, favor partially or entirely closing Springcreek and Dern Roads, and shifting traffic to nearby routes.
In Stang’s view, the federal government’s highway funding structure has warped planners’ priorities. The $6.5 million project is slated to be paid for with Highway Safety Improvement Program (HISP) funds, in which the federal government cover 90 percent of road safety improvements.
“My biggest concern with the Department of Transportation is [that] they’re hell-bent to spend their federal safety money,” he said.
Toavs said that the agency was examining the broader area.
“MDT has field reviewed location along U.S. 2 from west of Kalispell to Marion, but has not formally nominated a corridor study for this section of U.S. 2.”
The intersection revamp is already much further along. Toavs said last week that the public comment and discussion process for the intersection revamp will likely conclude in winter or early spring.
Komenda left a Sept. 25 information meeting with the impression that a roundabout is “90 percent a ‘done deal.’”
“A roundabout is not necessarily unsuitable to this location,” A2Z Engineering’s Smith says. “Anywhere that roundabouts are installed in Montana they tend to be jarring to motorists, because they are so uncommon.”
That could prove especially true on the hillside where these roads curve and meet, and for the drivers of large trucks that will have to negotiate them. According to Smith, “Given an unlimited funding source, an overpass/interchange would be better.”
But ultimately, “This is a difficult intersection to improve. Increasing safety will cause a compromise in other areas.”
Patrick Reilly can be reached at email@example.com, or 758-4407.