Traffic congestion at Columbia and 13th not new issue

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First off, I must clarify that I have no affiliation with Riverbank Properties, nor with any entity or individual who ever had or now has a vested interest in either that property or the proposed project.

Nonetheless, I do have an interest in my community, which prompts me to chime in regarding the apparent concern voiced at a recent planning board meeting due to the potential for increased impacts on traffic on Columbia Avenue and on 13th Street from the Columbia Avenue Bridge to Highway 93.

I should also clarify that I served as chair of the Whitefish City-County Planning Board from early 1980 through 1983, and served on the Whitefish City Council from January 1986 through December 1992.

As a former City Council member, I have taken a stance that I would not voice my thoughts and opinions regarding actions, taken or pending, of City Councils that have served subsequent to 1992, unless I personally and directly was affected by that action. This matter, however, motivates me to speak out.

Anyone who is out and about in the south part of Whitefish when school is in session, say from late August through early June, knows that traffic at certain times of the day is horrible. On Spokane Avenue, both southbound and northbound traffic can be extensively backed up due to congestion. And this seems to be the gist of the traffic concerns that were voiced about the Riverbank project.

It is likely that the majority of today’s Whitefish area residents do not know who Russ Ramlow was. He passed on many years ago. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Russ Ramlow was a Whitefish City Councilor. His day job was the proprietor of Coast-to-Coast, located on Central Avenue where McGough’s is now located.

For 12 years, Russ tried to get the city to address a traffic bottleneck between the Whitefish High School and Muldown Elementary and Spokane Avenue, to no avail. For those who have been on the City Council, you all know how long it takes for government to do what the private sector could do in months, so it came as no surprise when Russ told me how long he had tried to get resolution to that problem.

In 1986, the year I became a City Councilor, I recall the Council became apprised of this same unresolved traffic problem and potential solution. And the Council took a major step toward taking care of that situation. They bought property adjoining an existing right of way to resolve construction constraints generated by the topography and an existing older home which was encroaching the right of way. This acquisition effectively set the stage for badly needed resolution of this traffic nightmare.

The sole remaining constraint was funding to actually accomplish the construction. About the same time, needs like this led to the Council adopting the tax increment finance program, which eventually has funded millions of dollars of capital improvements in Whitefish, including streets. But somehow, never this one need.

I’ll now ask a rhetorical question: Have you ever wondered why the city of Whitefish owns a quarter of a city block fronting on Kalispell Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets? Well, the easy answer might be because there seems to be a sewer lift station down in that depression, accessible through that property. But that answer is not why the city owns that land.

Don’t remember the exact year, but in the late 1980s, early 1990s, the city of Whitefish acquired that property to enable the construction of Seventh Street between Spokane Avenue and Kalispell Avenue, enabling a straight shot from Spokane Avenue to the cul-de-sac at Muldown Elementary School. Naturally, this straight route also provided direct access to the high school.

From the date of acquisition of the necessary land to build a street through that one city-block distance, 40 years have elapsed since Russ Ramlow initiated discussion about providing this simple, direct, and straight shot access from School District 44 properties to Spokane Avenue, thereby at least partially alleviating the horrendous traffic impacts and congestion in that corner of town.

And during the last 30 years, give or take a few, tens of millions of dollars have been spent upgrading Whitefish city streets all over town, but somehow, this vital one-block section never seems to be viewed as critical, never makes the construction list.

And while the city is at it, they should rebuild whatever remains of Seventh Street east of Kalispell Avenue that needs upgrading, as well. Then work with the Montana Department of Transportation, and get a traffic signal installed where Seventh Street meets Highway 93.

When you’ve got traffic congestion, the answer is simple — find a way to relieve the pressure. In other words, offer more ways to and from the traffic generator. In this instance, the traffic generator is the schools.

Please don’t use school-generated traffic as a reason to reject the redevelopment of the former North Valley Hospital properties. Approve or deny that project on its own merits, not on the grounds that a traffic problem that has been simmering for 40 years has yet to be taken care of, a problem located more than a half-dozen city blocks north of the development site. That traffic problem is an existing, stand-alone matter. Deal with it as such!

I think it’s about time that Russ Ramlow’s street gets funded, and then built ASAP!

Jerry E. Hanson, Whitefish

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