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Council votes to proceed with permit for Riverbend-Miles Trail section

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | May 15, 2024 1:00 AM

At the Whitefish City Council meeting last week, 16 members of the public spoke in support of completing the Riverbend-Miles portion of the Whitefish River Trail. The council voted unanimously to proceed with the application process for a 124 permit. 

The section of trail would connect the river trail from the north edge of the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge underpass to the BNSF Railway loop trail. Currently, the trail ends and users must climb stairs or cross over U.S. 93 North and go up the hill that is Miles Avenue to rejoin the trail.

Julie Tickle, executive director of DREAM Adaptive Recreation, called the option of crossing over the highway onto Miles Avenue “a serious issue of public safety.”

“I’m here to ask you tonight … to prioritize and act with urgency to create a safe and universally-designed and connected multi-use trail system in Whitefish,” Tickle said. “The only safe and accessible route through this section is to follow the easement along the river.”

Whitefish resident Austin Reese prefaced his comment by saying he, his wife and two daughters enjoy spending time outdoors exploring the area.

“I think the crossing over 93 north onto Miles Avenue is dangerous,” Reece said. “For people in my situation, and anybody who uses adaptive equipment or mobility devices, it is unsafe and not a plausible solution.”

Diane Conradi from Safe Trails Whitefish said 400 people signed a petition to show their support of this trail. Landscape architect Bruce Boody, who volunteered his time to design the path, said the city has held the easement for more than 40 years and that the city staff deserve a “big hand” for working with a variety of people on this project.

Whitefish Public Works Director Craig Workman's report says this part of the trail has a long history that dates back to 1983 when an easement was granted to the city for a path. For a while, a raised boardwalk was used but it was removed when it fell into disrepair.

“In 1982, I was a carpenter and I helped build those condominiums and that walkway,” said John Wilson, former Public Works Director for the city. “At the time we built it, I remember we laughed about [how it] was a boardwalk to nowhere and … it’s the critical link, now.”

Two years ago, the council voted unanimously to proceed with an elevated path for the Riverbend Trail. Earlier this year, the council directed staff to proceed with final engineering and submittal of a Stream Protection Act 124 permit.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation says the purpose of the permit is to protect wildlife and maintain streams and rivers in their natural stage. A 124 permit is required for any project that may affect the natural shape and form of any stream, its banks or tributaries.

“We’ve been working with our design team to finalize plans and complete the application for the 124 permit,” Workman said. “In doing so, we evaluated construction material options based on several different factors including durability, constructibility and cost.”

Four options were considered for the stringers and decking and the team settled on the option that uses a steel support structure with a precast concrete decking. The plan also utilizes helical piers that will cause less of a disturbance to the riverbed than other types of piers.

“In terms of construction cost, we’re estimating a total bill of about $1.5 to $2 million dollars to build this section of trail,” Workman said. 

It is anticipated the costs can be covered in a future budget year with a combination of general fund, paved trail impact fees, and resort tax dollars. In addition, there is approximately $200,000 in developer contributions for the Miles Avenue section of trail which will be at-grade. 

Staff will proceed with submitting the application for the 124 permit. There is no timeline set for the project but Whitefish resident Lucas Stacy was likely on target. 

“As a father with a disability, there are limited places where I can recreate with my kid,” said Stacy. “This project may not get done by the time he still wants to hang out with me, but for future generations … I'd like to see this get done.”