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Whitefish pathway projects continue to make progress

by ELSA ERICKSEN Whitefish Pilot
| February 14, 2024 12:00 AM

Several projects planned for Whitefish’s bike and pedestrian routes are moving forward. 

Public Works Director Craig Workman on Feb. 5 shared updates regarding the ongoing projects at the Whitefish Pedestrian and Bicycle Path Advisory Committee meeting.

Discussion regarding the construction of a path along what is known as the Riverbend section took up over half the meeting.

The proposed project is now officially the Riverbend Miles Avenue Path Project. City Council in January voted to combine two sections of the path, the Riverbend section with the Miles Avenue section, into one and will submit a 124 permit application to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks that reflects this change. A 124 permit is required for any proposed project that may impact streams in Montana. 

The Riverbend and Miles Avenue sections of the trail are north of Veteran’s Bridge on U.S. 93 and include the Riverbend Condominium parcel along with the property to the north. Combining these two sections will connect the existing paths from Kay Beller Park to the BNSF River Trail.

Combining the two sections required additional topographic work, which has been completed. Now TD&H, the engineers contracted for the project, are working on a conceptual design for combining the paths before beginning work on the actual structural and engineering aspects of the project.

Workman said the geotechnical work is expected to take most of February. 

“Once that is done, they can then begin the actual 124 permitting process, which we know will likely take another month or six weeks,” he said. “ So at this point, it’s our goal to have that 124 permit submitted sometime in April.” 

The city plans to submit the permit application, but there is still uncertainty in the project regarding the sign-off of the Riverbend Condominium Homeowners Association, which has been resistant to the proposed path. 

Regarding planned improvements for the Baker Avenue/Wisconsin Avenue viaduct over the BNSF railway tracks, the Montana Department of Transportation has given permission to the city to move the existing jersey barriers, after years of saying that was not an option.

“In moving the jersey barriers we still need to do a structural analysis of the viaduct, so we’re not completely out of the woods, but we at least have confirmation from Montana Department of Transportation that they will consider it should the structural analysis prove that the bridge isn’t going to fall on the railroad tracks,” Workman said.

Work on the viaduct includes narrowing down the vehicular travel lanes on the viaduct to create a 12-foot wide multi-use trail on both sides of the roadway. This involves changes to the existing jersey barriers. 

The goal is to complete work on the viaduct, which includes lighting and landscape improvements as well as the elimination of the slip lane on the west side of Baker Avenue, in the fall of 2024. 

The viaduct improvements is one of the major components of the city’s 2015 downtown business district master plan and it’s also included in the 2017 bike and pedestrian master plan. 

Plans to install a pedestrian bridge at the Whitefish Yards Project at 95 Karrow Avenue is hopefully nearing a conclusion, Workman reported. The mixed-use development was approved in 2018 and included plans to connect trails on the property with the Whitefish River path with a bridge.

The project has hit snags regarding the permitting process. The city is waiting on a response from BNSF regarding a perpetual use agreement where the trail is planned to connect via a bridge with the BNSF Loop Trail. 

“Where we’re stuck is getting the proposed bridge across the Whitefish River. We need a permit from [Department of Natural Resources and Conservation] for what’s considered the airspace between the river and the bridge, and in order for them to consider that permit we need perpetual rights to the 400 square feet of land where the bridge will be on the BNSF side. Their most recent request was for a specific citation or statutory language to acquire that perpetual ownership.”

As soon as the city receives a positive response from BNSF, installation of the bridge will begin immediately, Workman said.

“The bridge is built, it’s sitting on site, we just need permission to install it,” he said.