Big Sky grapples with construction traffic

By Amanda Eggert EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – Josh Stephens said when a rock shattered his windshield last fall near the intersection of Lone Mountain Trail and Ousel Falls Road, “it was like a bullet going through the window.”

Stephens, a Big Sky resident, thinks a piece of gravel had lodged between an 18-wheeler’s tires, which spit out the rock as he passed going the other direction.

The silver-dollar sized rock shattered the windshield and became lodged in the temperature gauge on his rearview mirror.

Stephens said shards of glass covered his face and body. “If I didn’t have glasses on, I definitely would have lost my eyes,” he said.

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Skid marks darken the road next to a semi trailer parked on Lone Mountain Trail. This stretch of asphalt, just west of Ousel Falls Road, is one of the busiest intersections during Big Sky construction season.

Although Stephens mentioned the incident to the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office, without a license plate number or a way to track down the driver of the truck—who didn’t stop—he didn’t know how to proceed.

Motorists on Highway 191 have a slightly different issue to contend with—gravel falling from overloaded trucks and cracking their windshields, particularly through winding stretches of Gallatin Canyon.

This summer alone, Bozeman resident Jason Slater has suffered two cracked windshields from driving through the canyon on Highway 191, one to his personal vehicle and one to a work truck. He attributes both to gravel falling off uncovered semi loads in the canyon.

He said the situation is aggravated by the “dangerously slow speeds” some semi truck drivers travel—known as “speed differential” in transportation parlance—and their refusal to use slow-vehicle turnouts.

“You get really close to them and try to pass them and then boom, you get hit by a rock,” Slater said. “It seems like it never ends and it’s super frustrating.”

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.

Some drivers contend that most pullouts in the canyon don’t have sufficient line of site behind them to re-enter the highway safely, so they don’t use them.

Slater, who delivers furniture to Big Sky from Bozeman and regularly drives the canyon to ski and kayak, is frustrated that he’ll have to replace the windshield, but he’s also concerned about safety. “Some of those rocks are big,” he said.

Sgt. Brandon Kelly said the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office has handled some incidents involving gravel trucks and other motorists. Kelly said in the case of gravel falling out of a truck, the driver could be issued a moving vehicle violation for failure to secure a load.

Jeff Ebert, district administrator with the Montana Department of Transportation for this area, said trucking firms are required to keep material inside their truck boxes, but there isn’t a specific law on the books mandating that all loads are covered with a tarp or other material.

Ebert said drivers should stay a safe distance away from gravel trucks and added that a motorist with damage to their vehicle could file a tort claim, a legal filing made in response to a civil wrong.

Buz Davis, a Big Sky resident whose windshield was broken on Highway 191 this past June by gravel from a truck with two trailers, took down a license plate number for the truck responsible. He spoke to a Gallatin County Sheriff officer, who looked up the trucking firm and gave Davis their phone number.

Davis said he called the company and was connected to their insurance provider, who sent an adjustor to look at his vehicle in Bozeman. Davis replaced the windshield and received a check for reimbursement. “It was pretty painless,” he said of the process.

Calls to a number of gravel operations and trucking firms in Bozeman and Belgrade were unreturned. One Belgrade-based trucking operation said they don’t deliver to Big Sky due to the number of accidents in the canyon, the high volume of traffic, and the amount of time it takes to deliver a load.

Ken Morton, owner of Canyon Auto Repair and Towing, said he notices an increase in the number of flat tires the shop repairs when construction is booming. He said the shop typically handles three to five flat tires per day during busy construction cycles, and that most of the flats the shop works on are punctured tires from nails and screws.

“When the construction stops, we don’t get that many flats,” Morton said.

Sgt. Kelly said given some larger projects underway in the area, it’s possible that construction traffic has increased, but added, “They would have to buy more [gravel] trucks to increase traffic—I think they’re all out there.”

Data from the Montana Department of Transportation traffic counters indicate that there is an increase in large truck traffic.

Counters don’t parse out vehicles by the contents of their trailers, but they do differentiate between trucks by number of axles.

The trucks that deliver gravel to Big Sky typically have five or seven-plus axles, according to Dan Moore, bureau chief for the Montana Motor Carrier Service. The counter located on Highway 191 about two miles north of its intersection with Lone Mountain Trail logged an average of 232 five-axle truck trips per day this July—a 9.5 percent increase from the same month last year.

Trucks with seven or more axles took a daily average of 113 trips in July, reflecting no change from 2015. Those numbers include traffic traveling both north and south.

In the space of one hour on Aug. 11, 14 double-trailer gravel trucks and 11 cement trucks traveled between Highway 191 and Ousel Falls Road. That number could reflect multiple trips taken by the same trucks.

Ian Sandmeyer, who lives off Highway 191 seven miles north of the Lone Mountain Trail turnoff, says trucks can load gravel in Big Sky but drive loaded through the canyon from Bozeman and Belgrade instead.

“Big Sky has the ability to produce gravel,” Sandmeyer said, referring to the gravel pit located just south of the Lone Mountain trail junction on Highway 191 across from the Exxon gas station. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t just have a shorter route by taking gravel from Big Sky.”

Sandmeyer’s vehicle was dinged by gravel near the 35-mph bridge in Gallatin Canyon. It came from a truck that lost part of its load on Highway 191. “You could tell gravel spilled all the way down the canyon,” he said.

Sandmeyer, a furniture maker, has to turn left onto Highway 191 to drive into Bozeman for work. He said that on any given day he waits 5 to 15 minutes just to enter the highway due to high traffic volume.

“I hate to say it, but I almost think it should be 45 mph all the way through [the canyon],” Sandmeyer said. “People can’t handle it the way it is and I think if the speed limit was lowered it would create a safer road for everyone.

“Covered [trailers] should be required due to the fact of the tight corners in the canyon,” he said, adding that he’s also concerned that the high volume of heavy trucks are deteriorating the road surface by creating lumps and potholes. “That’s going to be pretty scary in the winter.”

Sandmeyer thinks construction traffic could slow in another 10 years. Once Big Sky is fully developed, he’s hopeful the road will be safer. He says there’s no point in even replacing windshields if you regularly drive the canyon.

“At the same time,” he acknowledges, “I make my money off construction, so it’s kind of a double-sided sword.”