Big Sky’s resident highway patrolman starts duty

By Amanda Eggert EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – A traffic study commissioned by the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce found protected turn lanes are warranted at multiple intersections along Highway 64, also known as Lone Mountain Trail.

The study, which is still in draft form, includes information on 12 intersections, starting with Highway 64’s intersection with Highway 191, and stretching west to the Moonlight Basin entrance.

Turn lanes are warranted by existing traffic volumes but have not been installed at Huntley Drive, Big Pine Drive, Big Sky Resort Road and Andesite Drive, said Danielle Scharf, a senior transportation engineer with Sanderson Stewart, the firm that prepared the study.

Between 2006 and 2016, 182 crashes occurred along the 10-mile stretch of highway. While those numbers are not high enough to warrant use of Montana Department of Transportation funds earmarked for safety improvements at high-crash locations, Scharf said she thinks MDT would be on board with the installation of turn bays—either protected left-turn lanes, or right turn bays—if alternative funding was secured.

According to crash data, 70 percent of the 182 accidents included in the report involved just one vehicle, and 40 percent of them occurred under clear weather conditions.

“It seemed a little bit counter-intuitive,” Scharf said of those findings, adding that animal crashes could be included in the single-vehicle statistic.

Gallatin County Sherriff Sgt. Brandon Kelly said the high rate of single vehicle accidents could point to cell phone use while driving, which is not illegal in Big Sky. “Distracted driving is an issue up here,” Kelly said.

Kelly said protected turn lanes are going to be essential with continued development, especially given the current speed limits of 35-50 mph on the 10-mile stretch, and the lack of a shoulder.

One significant change to Big Sky’s traffic enforcement was implemented in mid-April: the addition of a highway patrol trooper who lives in Big Sky. Montana State Highway Patrol Capt. Mark Wilfore said Tyler Brant started his assignment on April 15 and after a week of familiarization, he is now working here full-time.

Wilfore said a resident trooper was added to Big Sky to address increasing development and the deteriorating traffic conditions that accompany an increasing population. Brant is tasked with enforcement and accident investigation on Highways 191 and 64.

Brant will undoubtedly respond to crashes involving wildlife—25 of the crashes noted in the traffic study involved animals, although Scharf said there could be more that were not reported. The highest density of animal crashes occurred between 0.5-1.5 miles west of Highway 191. Kelly said bighorn sheep licking salt off the road or traveling down to the river for water pose a particular problem, as they tend not to move off the road when vehicles approach.

Scharf said a road ecologist from Western Transportation Institute will weigh in on the wildlife issue, and possible solutions, later in the process.

The Big Sky Chamber of Commerce will host a public meeting to discuss the findings of the Sanderson Stewart study at 5 p.m. on June 26 at the Big Sky Chapel.