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City seeks transportation grant for improvements to viaduct

by HEIDI DESCH
Whitefish Pilot | June 2, 2021 1:00 AM

The City of Whitefish is applying for a transportation grant to fund a portion of planned improvements for the viaduct over the BNSF railroad tracks.

The city is seeking $560,000 in grant funds from the Montana Department of Transportation’s transportation alternatives grant program, which is designed to be used for bike and pedestrian facilities and similar transportation projects.

Public Works Director Craig Workman points out that the improvement to the viaduct is included in the city’s downtown master plan and also its bike and pedestrian plan. The project is a critical link in the city's bike and pedestrian facilities, he noted.

“The viaduct has been long identified as a critical link to tie the north side of Whitefish to the downtown area on the south side of the viaduct and the viaduct improvement project is highlighted in both plans as one of the key elements to accomplish their goals,” Workman said.

The entire viaduct project is estimated to cost about $860,000. The city would use $300,000 of its own funds for the project.

City Council recently authorized proceeding with the grant application.

The project is planned to include narrowing the vehicle travel lanes, a 12-foot wide multi-use trail on both sides of the roadway by replacing and moving the existing jersey barriers on the road and adding decorative street lighting with irrigation and the ability to hang flower baskets.

The original concept for the viaduct improvement project in the downtown master plan included a much more extensive project that included large landscape planter boxes between the paths and the vehicle driving lanes, benches, ornamental fencing to replace chain link fencing on the viaduct and information kiosks.

However, Workman said a review of the concept found there were significant challenges with that design. Those included large planter boxes with trees on the viaduct adding significant weight to the bridge structure as a concern and that growing trees in planter boxes was not ideal for long-term tree health.

Cost for the entire conceptual design was $1.3 million, which Workman said would also be a challenge to fund.

Near the viaduct, the plan also called for permitting two-way travel on Railway Street west of Baker Avenue and adding parking along Railway Street for recreational trail use and additional Railway District retail parking.

Workman said while the additional parking was removed from the project for now, it is recommended that that portion be considered again later.

Councilor Andy Feury said he would like to see the city do the parking portion at some point, and also said it would be positive if the chain link fence could be replaced by another type of fencing.

“I’m glad we’re able to move forward with a portion of this,” he said. “I understand we don’t have the funds to do the entire thing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get part of it cleaned up.”

During public comment, Rhonda Fitzgerald said she would like to see the project include more of the original concept design, but is glad to see some work planned.

“It’s great that there is some progress toward achieving this,” she said. “This is an important bike and pedestrian connection and an important connection for businesses north of the viaduct to downtown.”