The Gallatin Canyon traffic conundrum

By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer

BIG SKY – On July 2, while returning home from Bozeman, Joanie and Andy Dreisbach of Big Sky were involved in an accident when a northbound driver veered into their lane, resulting in a head-on collision. The force of the wreck buckled the Dodge truck in which the Dreisbachs were traveling, causing serious injuries to both Andy and Joanie, and killing the driver of the other vehicle.

While the accident happened just north of the canyon, increased safety along U.S. Highway 191 in Gallatin Canyon has been a near constant topic of discussion for the Dreisbachs and those who have rallied to support them and their three children.

The Gallatin Canyon has become a dreaded stretch of road, glutted with construction vehicles and commuters on account of Big Sky’s blistering growth. According to the Montana Department of Transportation, vehicle volume in the canyon has increased an average of 7.4 percent every year since 2013 with an annual average of 6,412 vehicles traveling the canyon daily in 2017, up 2,015 vehicles from the 2013 annual daily average.

“The road was never designed or constructed to handle the volume of traffic that it now sees on a daily [basis],” Sgt. Brandon Kelly of the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office wrote in a July 10 email.

Sandwiched between the Gallatin River and steep canyon walls, many stretches throughout the corridor preclude adding lanes or widening existing lanes. According to Jeffrey Ebert, the MDT Butte district administrator, MDT has already spent close to $26 million during the last five years in the canyon, including adding centerline rumble strips and extra turnouts.

“We feel we’ve tried to address a lot of the needs throughout,” Ebert said. “But we definitely have more needs than money.” He said that MDT has no major projects currently planned for the canyon.

The artery has also been cited as a concern in emergency scenarios such as an evacuation or a mass-casualty incident. According to Kelly, an average of one traffic-related death occurs annually in the canyon.

Most of the corridor lacks cellphone service, a risk that the Rotary Club of Big Sky stepped up to address more than a decade ago, installing emergency call boxes at Moose Creek Flat, Karst Stage Loop and Taylor Fork Road. The club is in the process of updating the old call boxes with more reliable, solar powered, one-touch call boxes, according to Lee Griffiths who is spearheading the project.

Last summer, they updated the Moose Creek Flat call box and are installing another at the 35 mph bridge near the Lava Lake trailhead, with plans to update the Taylor Fork call box and remove the Karst Stage Loop call box—it’s less than a mile from the Moose Creek Flat call box—in the coming year. They also intend to install a call box where Highway 191 crosses the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park, south of Big Sky.

While the canyon restricts emergency call opportunities, it also restricts law enforcement.

“I think the chief challenges that we deal with [are] just the geographics of the canyon,” Kelly said in a July 9 interview, referencing the number of blind corners and the difficulty of stopping vehicles speeding, making illegal passes or, conversely, going too slow and obstructing traffic by not utilizing turnouts.

Although the signs at the mouth of the canyon may seem like a suggestion, it’s Montana law that drivers on two-lane highways pull off the road—when safely possible—if they have four or more vehicles lined up behind them, or when they are impeding the normal and reasonable flow of traffic.

“Slower motorists are actually more dangerous,” Kelly said, as these drivers induce more aggressive drivers to make dangerous passes. Addressing these slow drivers is difficult for officers to do safely, often confronted with passing a line of cars to conduct the stop.

Andy Dreisbach thinks installing traffic cameras in the canyon could address both illegal passes and failure to use turnouts, while keeping law enforcement out of danger.

“You could have a police officer who reviews 40 of those incidences in any given day, whereas if they were to pull over somebody, they might capture three of those events in a day,” Dreisbach said.

However, a Montana bill passed in 2009 “forbids cameras or any other technology to enforce violations not witnessed by a police officer,” according to a story by the Associated Press. The ban shuttered several red-light camera installations in Bozeman and Billings at the time.

While some locals have attributed heightened danger in the canyon to the cadres of contractors drinking alcohol on the drive back to Bozeman each evening, Kelly disagrees that one population of drivers can be blamed for DUI incidents. As wheels on the road increase, so do DUIs and accidents in general.

Driesbach believes “a cacophony” of factors contribute to the dangers of Highway 191 through the canyon, noting how pleasurable Sunday drives are a thing of the past.

“It’s this whole societal paradigm shift where driving is no longer a privilege or a pleasure,” Dreisbach said. “It is merely an inconvenience.”

While traffic in the canyon is a conundrum the community will have to solve as growth continues, Kelly said that being courteous on the roadway and letting the faster traffic get by will help the situation for everyone.