Council eyes option for Baker underpass

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The Baker Avenue pedestrian underpass project has been part of the City of Whitefish's planning documents for years.

Whitefish appears to be keying in on an option for what the Baker Avenue pedestrian underpass might look like.

WGM Group last week presented City Council during its work session with preliminary cost estimates for a few choices related to the underpass that is planned to span under Baker near the O’Shaughnessy Center west connecting to the city’s path off of Railway Street to Depot Park.

Council seemed to favor an option that is estimated to cost about $1.63 million to construct the underpass. Under that option, a concrete structure would be used for then underpass with vertical interior walls 20 feet wide by 10 feet in height.

Jon Gass, principal engineer with WGM Group, said his firm created conceptual options for the underpass with a range of costs from about $1.5 million to more than $2 million.

“We want to know what the city’s interest is in the options,” he said. “What improvements you want to make sure you get in place.”

The least expensive options included creating the underpass with a steel arch structure followed by the mid-range cost of a concrete structure and the most expensive included a concrete structure along with a landscaped plaza.

Gass said using concrete for the interior while a little more expensive would create an open, vertical interior that is similar to the type of underpass described in city planning documents.

Mayor John Muhlfeld said it’s important that the city move forward on the project to utilize tax increment finance funds to pay for it. He concurred with Council in having WGM further refine plans for the concrete underpass.

“I’m very glad that we have been planning to do this,” he said. “If we don’t do this now, we’re never going to do it.”

Muhlfeld noted that the option would allow for construction of the underpass, but not extensive landscaping creating a plaza leading to Depot Park as had been shown in city planning documents.

“This tees up for success now,” he said. “In the future we can look for funds that could add landscaping to create the plaza.”

Public Works Director Craig Workman said by selecting the concrete option with vertical walls over a rounded steel structure, would meet the city’s plans that call for the wide underpass so it’s bright, open and attractive. Concrete provides more opportunity for usable space in the future too, he noted.

“We don’t want to build something that precludes future work — like including public art or LED lighting,” he said. “What we do in 2020 needs to allow for upgrades later.”

The city currently has $1.4 million set aside in tax increment finance funds to pay for the underpass. The city must be under contract for the project before its TIF district sunsets on July 15.

City Manager Dana Smith said the TIF district does have another almost $780,000 in funds that hasn’t yet been allocated to a specific project and could be designated to pay for the underpass project.

Final designs for the underpass are expected in May with bidding to follow, and then construction would take place beginning in September lasting about three months, according to the project timeline set by WGM Group.

City Council still has to approve a final design for the underpass, as well as contracts for construction.

During public comment, Rhonda Fitzgerald thanked the city for moving forward on the project.

“This has been a critical connector for alternative modes of transportation that we’ve needed for some time,” she said. “This will let kids ride bikes to school — this is an important connection in the bike path system.”

The city’s downtown master plan and bicycle and pedestrian master plan both call for the construction of the Baker Avenue underpass to serve as a link connecting the Railroad District to Central Avenue and also as creating a critical link in the city’s bike path system.

BNSF Railway in the fall gave its OK for a license agreement that would permit the city to construct the underpass.

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