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Viaduct to get wider pedestrian paths, lighting

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | September 20, 2023 12:00 AM

Whitefish is moving forward with improvements to the viaduct crossing the BNSF Railway tracks north of downtown.

Whitefish City Council had previously discussed recent changes in the viaduct improvement plan and last week approved phase one.

Steven McDaniel with the WGM Group presented the council with a Baker Viaduct Project update. The latest development since the beginning of the project in May of 2022, is that the city will be allowed to reuse the existing rail, which results in a savings of $250,000.

Additionally, the width of the new shared-use paths on each side of the viaduct was reduced from 12 feet to 10 feet to allow room for MDT’s bridge inspection truck. The current paths are 5 feet wide.

This phase of the project involves relocating the existing guardrail and concrete barriers to create 10-foot shared-use paths on either side of two, 12-foot travel lanes for traffic.

Projects to proceed simultaneously include lighting on Baker Avenue, landscaping at the north end of the viaduct, and improvements to the west side of the Railway Street crossing to make it more safe for pedestrians.

Since MDT will not allow anything to be attached to the bridge deck, decorative lighting, potentially with flower baskets, will be located on the east and west sides of both approaches to the viaduct.

“The lighting improvements… just wouldn’t improve the lighting on the actual bridge deck,” Whitefish Public Works Director Craig Workman said. “Because in order to change the lighting on the bridge deck, we would have to create new anchors.”

The gateway landscaping will focus on street trees on the northwest corner of the viaduct.

While both sides of the Railway Street intersection are slated to be reworked, only the west side will be addressed in this phase.

The plan is to close the slip lane and extend the path and sidewalk. Southbound drivers wishing to turn right onto Railway Street will have to slow down to use a more typical intersection rather than the slip lane. McDaniel said the new configuration will shorten the crossing distance for pedestrians by about 85 feet.

The total cost for this phase of the project is $780,000. The city has allocated all but $20,000 of that amount.

Councilors Steve Qunell and Andy Feury voiced concerns about the cost of the project.

“It’s costing us three quarters of a million dollars to put in some trees and move some barriers and add some lights,” Qunell said. “I have a lot of heartburn over how much that cost is for what we’re getting.”

Feury said that the cost of moving the barriers seems high to him. He added that the shared use path on the viaduct and the northbound slip lane are dangerous, and that making improvements to the viaduct is a safety issue.

“Eventually… there’s going to be a pedestrian accident or a bike accident and then we’re all going to feel bad that we didn’t do something,” Feury said. “I’m all for moving forward.”

Workman explained that moving the barriers requires concrete demolition and replacement for the curbing on both sides, traffic control, equipment and labor. He didn’t have the detailed cost estimate to share at the meeting, so Workman said he would get back to the council with more information.

By a show of hands, the council supported moving the plan forward, with Councilor Giuseppe Caltabiano in opposition.

MONTHS AGO, the council asked Whitefish City Attorney Angela Jacobs to look into repealing the section of code that requires a vote of the majority of elected councilors to pass an ordinance.

There have been times when an ordinance has failed to pass due to the failure to get the super majority vote, because when there is a quorum of council members present, all four must vote unanimously. The item may be removed from the consent agenda at the following meeting by a councilor who voted with the majority, for further discussion.

During public comment, the only resident in attendance, Mike Hein, said although he appreciated the problem inherent in the current process, he had concerns.

“It’s exactly the ordinances that have dissent that are the ones that should… require the council to fully weigh in,” Hein said. “I don’t think, philosophically, making it easier to pass ordinances is a great idea… I don’t think it’s necessarily bad.”

Given the empty chambers, Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld took time to respond to Heim’s concerns.

“There’s also been times where we’ve had applicants actually pull or voluntarily postpone knowing that we were not going to have a full quorum because it kind of sets a higher bar,” Muhlfeld said. “I think it can go both ways.”

Councilor Feury agreed and said he’s given the code careful consideration and doesn’t believe it will be an issue.

Jacobs drafted the proposal to repeal the section of code that requires the super majority vote.

“There are certain provisions of Montana law that do still require a two-thirds vote of the council members elected,” Jacobs said. “So there will be some circumstances where we have to apply state law rather than this code provision.”

The council voted unanimously to repeal the code.

COUNCILOR Rebecca Norton said a large black bear was near her home in town recently.

“They are not coming out just at night, they’re coming out during the day,” Norton said. “They’re coming on to people’s porches… and they’ll keep coming back if they get food.”

Norton has been in contact with FWP Wildlife Management Specialist Justine Vallieres who shared video of three bears near homes in Whitefish.

Whitefish Manager Dana Smith reminded the public of the newly passed ordinance concerning the animal-resistant garbage bins.

“Effective 30 days from today, all garbage containers must be securely latched,” Smith said. “No longer can you have waste outside of your container.”

Smith added that if residents are filling the garbage can beyond capacity, they may purchase a second container.