By Tyler Allen and Amanda Eggert
BIG SKY – J.C. Knaub, a Big Sky resident since 1973, has feared for his life multiple times in recent years, just moments from his house.
“I almost got killed on my motorcycle coming back from Sturgis in August,” Knaub said, describing how a vehicle missed him by inches as he turned left into his driveway off Lone Mountain Trail. “People are driving way too fast and they’re not paying attention.”
Knaub says it was the third time in two years he’s nearly been done-in by other drivers while turning into his driveway. The other two were trying to pass him in the westbound lane while he had his blinker on.
Annual average daily traffic on Lone Mountain Trail – also known as Montana Highway 64 – increased 21 percent between 2010 and 2014 (the most recent data available), according to the Montana Department of Transportation. Fueled by a recovering development and tourism economy, Big Sky is facing a growing problem.
Big Sky’s landscape, and the roads lacing through it, have changed significantly since the late 1960s when Chet Huntley first envisioned a resort tucked between the Gallatin and Madison ranges.
“In 1972, when I got here, the road to the mountain was a logging road still and the spur road was still gravel,” said Big Sky resident Mike Scholz, referencing MT 64’s former name, “Big Sky Spur Road.”
Traffic is a major talking point in the community, Scholz said on Dec. 16. “In the last week I have been in three or four discussions about it.”
Scholz is also one of five Big Sky Resort Area District tax board members responsible for appropriating nearly $4 million collected annually from a 3 percent resort tax on luxury goods. During Scholz’s first four-year term the board didn’t see any proposals to address the traffic issue, but it wouldn’t surprise him, he says, to see resort tax applications by anxious parties in the future.
“It’s a concern for the community,” Scholz said. “If there’s a group of people that have a proposal for a project that’s a public health and safety issue, we would certainly look at it.”
During the twice-daily rush hours, cadres of contractor, cement and gravel trucks create strings of headlights on Ousel Falls Road and Highway 191.
A time-lapse video taken by EBS on Oct. 12 found that in one hour, between 8:40 and 9:40 a.m., 184 vehicles passed through Town Center on their way up Ousel Falls Road.
The Montana Department of Transportation collected traffic data and issued a report this spring suggesting that a traffic signal is warranted at the intersection of MT 64 and Ousel Falls Road, but it’s low on the agency’s priority list, according to MDT Butte District Administrator Jeffrey Ebert.
“MDT’s current backlog of needs would preclude funding for a signal at this time,” Ebert wrote in an email to EBS. “MDT would be willing to work with future developers and the local government on developing a funding solution.”
In an unincorporated town without a local government, solutions to Big Sky’s traffic problems – much like affordable housing, strained public transportation, and infrastructure development – rely upon the efforts of community members, developers and other stakeholders.
Kitty Clemens, executive director of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber recognizes the traffic issue and plans to host neighborhood meetings in early 2016 to address the topic. She said the idea is to capture public sentiment, and identify priorities to present to the chamber board.
“I think everyone would agree that [Big Sky’s] congested,” Clemens said, suggesting the conversation should be held at the state level as well. Clemens says smooth-functioning transportation is key to supporting a robust economy.
Despite the lack of a traffic signal, roundabout or other traffic mitigation measures, the busy intersection of MT 64 and Ousel Falls Road hasn’t recently been the site of a disastrous vehicle collision, though Big Sky Fire Department Chief William Farhat says there have been a number of minor accidents there and at the intersection of MT 64 and Little Coyote Road, near the Big Sky Meadow Village.
“Fortunately, no one’s gotten hurt,” Farhat said. “But it’s only a matter of time before someone does, if we don’t manage this traffic better.”
Traffic on Ousel Falls Road through Town Center is also dangerous given the number of vehicles and pedestrians, Farhat says, but as long as the 25-mph speed limit is enforced the road is as safe as it can be.
“All the big projects going on in the Yellowstone Club and Spanish Peaks [Mountain Club] are only going to add to this traffic flow,” Farhat said, noting that the 100-room hotel planned for Spanish Peaks will be the biggest private structure in the state. Coupled with the hundreds of homes being built at these private clubs, his department is bracing for the future.
“We’re busy now, but we’re entering a phase that will be unprecedented,” Farhat said.
South of Town Center, the speed limit on Ousel Falls Road increases to 35 mph on a windy, rural artery that wouldn’t appear to be designed for high-volume traffic, according to Farhat. “It would be beneficial if the road was widened,” he said. “And shoulders should be added so you have the ability to pull off and not be in the traffic … It’s an extremely busy road.”
The danger of MT 64 heading east from Ousel Falls Road to Highway 191 hasn’t been as benign, with one corner having a particularly tragic history.
On Aug. 17, a fatal collision occurred about one mile west of the
intersection with Highway 191, on a long, sweeping corner hugging the West Fork of the Gallatin River. A 23-year-old Colorado woman was killed after her Jeep Cherokee drifted over the centerline into the path of a dump truck towing a trailer.
“That was one of the worst accidents I’ve responded to, and I’ve been at this for 25 years,” Farhat said. “This is a real issue for this community to deal with. We’re lucky we haven’t had more tragedies.”
There were two other close calls on that corner this year.
A propane truck overturned last January when the driver swerved to avoid a bighorn sheep in the road. No propane was spilled in the accident, but the driver was transported to Bozeman Deaconess Hospital for minor injuries.
In November, a three-vehicle collision left a pickup truck and passenger vehicle totaled, and an electrical truck overturned in the westbound ditch.
“Most of the crashes that happened [on MT 64] in the summer were dump trucks that rolled over,” said Gallatin County Sheriff’s Sgt. Brandon Kelly. “[They] are going too fast for road conditions or the size of the vehicle they’re driving.
“I could see where [MDT] would eventually widen the roadway a little bit to allow people to get around dump trucks and [vehicles] hauling a lot of equipment, at least to the Meadow [Village],” Kelly said.
In addition to the MT 64 and Ousel Falls Road junction, just one other intersection – at Little Coyote Road in the Meadow Village – has dedicated turning lanes between Town Center and 191. That leaves the busy entrances to Roxy’s Market, Big Sky Medical Center, the post office, and new ACE Hardware store without protected turn lanes on a 50-mph road.
The growth of Big Sky is not only reflected in the number of construction vehicles snaking from Bozeman up Highway 191 to MT 64 and Ousel Falls Road. A recent housing study commissioned by the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce found that 83 percent of the resort community’s workforce commutes from elsewhere in Gallatin County. Some of those workers drive while others utilize a heavily strained public transportation system.
The Skyline bus service – called the Link Express between Bozeman and Big Sky – expanded this winter with additional routes, but is still leaving people behind, according to Big Sky Transportation District Coordinator David Kack.
“We’re doing nine round trips a day, could add another one now, and another one by next year,” Kack said, adding that last year Skyline was occasionally leaving two or three people behind due to full buses, and this year it’s closer to 30 people some days. “We’re kind of a victim of our own success.”
The full buses are adding more vehicles to Big Sky’s roads, as stranded commuters are forced to drive to work instead.
Steve Griffith, the transportation commissioner for Montana Transportation District Two, which includes Big Sky, says if a traffic signal is warranted at a given intersection – like MT 64 and Ousel Falls Road – and the traffic is largely driven by development, MDT asks the developers to contribute funding for the signal.
Often that money includes tapping Rural Improvement Districts, funded by self-imposed taxes on property owners in the district for road construction and maintenance. RIDs are the responsibility of the county, which approves roadway improvement projects in Big Sky.
RID 395 is one such district that has already funded projects at the intersection of MT 64 and Ousel Falls Road, by financing the turn lanes, as well as paving projects.
“There are a lot of extra taxes on people in Big Sky already,” said Clemens, of the Big Sky chamber. “I think there are 17 RIDs taxing people in Big Sky … [Ask] any colleague that you have living in Big Sky to look at their property taxes – there’s probably a road tax and they’re paying a RID depending on what road they live on.”
Big Sky sent nearly $540,000 in property taxes to the Gallatin County “Road Fund” in 2014, but that money isn’t spent in the community because there are no county roads here.
Highway 191 is a federal route maintained by the state, MT 64 is a state highway, and the balance of the roads are private – dedicated to the public – but maintained by homeowners associations and RIDs.
Highway 191: A longtime problem
Traffic isn’t merely a concern on MT 64. Much of Big Sky’s traffic originates from Gallatin Canyon, where 34 white crosses line a 22-mile stretch of Highway 191.
“We’ve had quite a few fatalities on this road over the years and a lot of those are associated with head-on crashes,” said Montana Highway Patrol trooper Brad Moore. “I’ve got ties to some of these crosses on the road.”
In the past, a driver who drifted into the oncoming lane had more cushion for error, according to Moore. But that cushion has been eroded by a steady stream of traffic.
“I’ve worked this canyon since late 2002, so I’ve seen it when [traffic] went up and when it came down a little bit,” Moore said, referring to the traffic fueled by the area’s building boom preceding the Great Recession. “People I talk to now say it’s right back to where it was, if not busier.”
Big Sky resident Koy Hoover has been commuting to his job at Stifel, Nicolaus and Company in Bozeman since 2005. Hoover says during the recession he would see approximately 10 vehicles daily heading up to Big Sky, but now “it’s just a chain of headlights.” He leaves home around 6 a.m. to be out of the canyon by 6:30, hoping to avoid the string of vehicles coming the other way.
“I’d say once a month someone’s over that center line … I have to pull over onto the shoulder to get out of the way,” Hoover said. “Some days I’ll come home and there’s three wrecks on the way.”
In 2014, an average of 4,754 vehicles – 310 of them large trucks with three-plus axles – drove the canyon on a given day. That’s still 12 percent shy of the 10-year high in 2007, but the annual average daily traffic has been steadily increasing since 2012.
In the past 10 years, MDT has completed nearly $30 million in roadway improvements on 191, installing guardrails, turn lanes and centerline rumble strips. MDT also widened parts of 191 and installed a traffic signal at the intersection of 191 and MT 64.
The only Gallatin Canyon improvement project on the books for the near future is guardrail replacement on a 7-mile stretch of road in the heart of the canyon that’s scheduled for 2018.
Montana State Highway Patrol Capt. Mark Wilfore said MHP is looking at ways to reduce crashes in the canyon. The agency is considering a move to step up trooper presence, but the corridor’s narrow, winding geography makes enforcement difficult and dangerous.
It’s not just the speeding drivers that create unsafe conditions in the canyon. Those traveling well below the speed limit present a danger to other drivers, too. “In the canyon, one thing people don’t remember is it’s also illegal to go [too] slow,” Sgt. Kelly said.
According to Montana Code 61-8-311, if four or more vehicles are trailing a slow-moving driver on a two-lane highway where passing is unsafe, the driver is required to pull over at the nearest safe turnout and let the other vehicles by.
“We do stop a lot of drivers for that,” Kelly said.
Moore said he is not inclined to make stops for that violation. He reasons it could be less safe for a semi driver to jam on his brakes to make a slow vehicle turnout, and it won’t take long before another string of vehicles collects behind him or her.
“I’d rather [a semi operator] drive a little bit slower and be safe than him driving 60 miles per hour so he doesn’t have traffic backed up behind him,” Moore said.
Shane Day, who drives Gallatin Canyon for Hi-Ball Trucking up to six times a week, said he only uses three of the pullouts in the canyon, because the rest don’t have a sufficient line of site behind them to re-enter the highway safely.
“[The traffic] is aggressive in the canyon,” Day says. “I’ve had people pass me in places you couldn’t even imagine, going through some of those corners. Even if you’re doing the speed limit in the canyon, they still want to get around you.”
There appears to be a correlation between large trucks driving Gallatin Canyon and the number of accidents occurring there. In 2008, there were 63 crashes and an average of 238 trucks driving the canyon daily. The following year, there were 34 crashes and a daily average of 88 trucks traveling through the canyon.
Although the overall traffic also dropped during that period – by 11 percent – the reduction was much more pronounced in large truck traffic since MDT rerouted most of it from 2008 to 2010 in order to accommodate construction in the canyon.
However, Highway 191 receives federal dollars and must allow large trucks. “If you want to accept federal funds on federal roads, you have to allow essentially every kind of traffic use … you can’t discriminate against trucks,” Griffith said.
Wilfore recognizes that adding a full shoulder, more guardrails and more turn lanes would reduce accidents through the canyon. Such projects are complicated by the canyon’s tight geography.
“Highway 191 is one of [District Two’s] highest priorities on the national highway system. But it is also one of the most environmentally sensitive areas that we have to work with because we’ve got the river on one side and the mountain on the other in a lot of areas,” Griffith said. “I don’t see funding as the limiter on that, it’s finding an engineering solution that works.”
Whether 191 sees future safety improvements or not, the traffic issues in Big Sky itself are presently on the shoulders of the community. Without a municipal government, solutions to this problem will be determined by community members taking the initiative to identify funding sources, organize stakeholders and petition the Gallatin County Commission for solutions.
In the meantime, safety on Big Sky roads will be determined by the drivers.