By Bay Stephens EBS LOCAL EDITOR
BIG SKY – On June 11, just over 15 months after the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that Gallatin County, on behalf of Big Sky, had won a $10.3 million TIGER grant, the county signed the grant. The grant will enable much-needed improvements on Lone Mountain Trail and has allowed the Powder Light employee housing development to continue moving forward.
“Gallatin County is leading the state in economic growth,” Sen. Steve Daines said in a March 6, 2018 statement when the award was announced. “This grant will help the county meet the infrastructure demands of this rapid growth and continue creating good-paying jobs in the community.”
The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant will be used for the construction of approximately seven turn lanes on Lone Mountain Trail, also known as Highway 64, a pedestrian tunnel beneath the highway and nearly $2.5 million for the Skyline bus system, which will include adding four buses and six vans to the existing public transport between Big Sky and the greater Bozeman area.
A 2017 transportation study commissioned by the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and written by the Western Transportation Institute identified numerous hazards on the state highway, including high traffic volumes and unprotected turn lanes.
The hazard of unprotected turn lanes stalled the construction of the Powder Light development, a project slated to have 40 four-bedroom employee housing units and commercial space just east of Ace Hardware. A vote of the county commissioners in 2017 citing the lack of a turn lane on Lone Mountain Trail as a safety concern brought the project’s progress to a halt.
Former developer Scott Altman, who was in a lawsuit with the county over the decision, said the TIGER grant helped allow the settlement. The county gave Powder Light preliminary plat in January with the condition that construction for the buildings cannot begin until the turn lane next to Ace Hardware is completed.
Currently, construction crews are installing the infrastructure to bring the project to final plat in anticipation of the turn lane’s potential addition next summer. Then, another developer will oversee the full Powder Light buildout.
Altman said the original hope was to start the development in November of 2017, so that the building would have potentially opened this summer.
“It’s just so sad it’s taken so long,” Altman said. “We’ve been wanting to do it for years and we were trying to, but hopefully they’ll let them break ground next summer once that turn lane goes in.”
Ironically, the same traffic study that was used to get the TIGER grant also prompted the county to stop the development of the Powder Light subdivision.
David Kack, coordinator for the Big Sky Transportation District and program manager for the Western Transportation Institute, said that if there is funding left over after the project is completed, and if traffic data warrants it, the remainder could potentially be put toward installing traffic signals at specific intersections. Where Lone Mountain Trail meets Little Coyote Road and where it intersects Huntley Drive are both potential candidates.
“I’m just looking forward, now that the grant is signed, to really doing all the work,” Kack said. “We’ve been waiting 15 months, so let’s get going and take care of the work that needs to happen in Big Sky.”
Gallatin County Grants Coordinator Jamie Grabinski said the grant signing took so long partially because the county received the federal funds, instead of the state as is usually the case. She said the state, county and U.S. DOT had to spend time ironing out administration details and that the county had to tweak their budget for the awarded money to suit federal standards.
Now that the county has signed the grant, it returns to the U.S. DOT for a final signature before the funds are released and the county can call for bids on construction.
With Montana’s short construction season, Grabinski said the proposed work schedule puts project completion and road opening at the end of July 2022, assuming the skies cooperate.
“Especially for Big Sky, weather is a big factor,” Grabinski said.
The grant is a win for the community and bears witness to Big Sky’s cooperative efforts, according to chamber CEO Candace Carr Strauss.
“Big Sky’s receipt of the $10.3 million TIGER Grant is a testament to this community’s commitment and the power of partnership,” Carr Strauss said. “Our ability to capture federal funds to assist Big Sky with its significant infrastructure needs as it continues to evolve from a tourist destination to a sustainable community is remarkable and the impact will be transformative in our continued growth.”