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Big Sky traffic crawls along in face of growth

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On Feb. 22, a flatbed truck carrying a load of boulders collided with a Skyline passenger bus, injuring seven and raising ire in the community. PHOTO BY BAY STEPHENS

Public transportation and carpooling compelling options

By Michael Somerby

BIG SKY – What characteristics define the typical Big Sky vehicle? Perhaps cracked windshields from stones flung backward from the tires of other vehicles; or back seats stuffed with an assortment of outdoor sporting gear; or, as residents will say, the near-impossible task of keeping a car’s exterior grime free.

What defines Big Sky’s Lone Mountain Trail, however, is another story, one where cleanliness, cargo space and chipped glass pale in comparison.

Projected growth

Traffic volumes on Lone Mountain Trail, otherwise known as Highway 64, increased by an average of 9.2 percent annually between 2011 and 2016, with average annual daily traffic (AADT) figures surpassing pre-recession peak traffic volumes for the first time in 2015, according to the 2017 Big Sky Transportation Study Report prepared for the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce by Bozeman-based civil engineering company Sanderson Stewart.

For 2016, the average number of vehicles on the road on any given day came in at a historic 7,500.

By 2037, that number could reach a staggering 18,000 vehicles per day if AADT volume increases at the projected year-over-year rate of 4.34 percent over the next 18 years, according to the same study.

Byproducts of such volume increases are easy to imagine and already occur to some degree, such as longer waits to access the resort or various commerce areas said Chief William Farhat of the Big Sky Fire Department.

“We’ve begun to see unheard of non-accident related traffic in Big Sky,” said Farhat, adding that  other consequences, like spikes in vehicular accidents, are also rearing their heads with no signs of slowing. “It’s really simple: More vehicles mean more accidents.”

One such accident recently underscored the reality of the situation.

At approximately 8:51 a.m. on Feb. 22, a flatbed truck laden with a 25-ton load of boulders careened into a Skyline passenger bus at the intersection of Lone Mountain Trail and Little Coyote Road in Big Sky, injuring seven.

Miraculously, the only reported passenger injuries were minor, with the most severe being a few broken bones.

Yet, the sheer number of people involved coupled with the potentially devastating alternatives and strain placed on morning commuter traffic, spurred fresh public outcry over traffic conditions in Big Sky.

“There are short-term, medium-term, and long-term solutions to this problem,” Farhat said. “Simply slowing down speeds along [Highway] 64 is short-term, installing more turn lanes is medium-term, and seeing the rest of the projects mapped out by the TIGER grant is long-term.”

The TIGER vision

In March 2018, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines announced that a $10.3 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant was awarded to Big Sky.

The proposal for the grant, written via a combined effort of the Western Transportation Institute and Sanderson Stewart, and submitted by Gallatin County on behalf of Big Sky in October 2017, was a direct result of the Chamber’s 2017 Big Sky Transportation Study Report.  

Funds provided through the grant will be allocated for the construction of a pedestrian tunnel beneath Lone Mountain Trail, approximately seven left-turn lanes, and nearly $2.5 million for the Skyline Bus system, adding four buses and six vans to the existing fleet that serves commuters traveling from Big Sky to Bozeman, among several other improvements.

The need for these improvements is paramount, with rapid and expansive developments underway in every corner of Big Sky, increases in wealthy homebuyers seeking footing in the fledgling community, and an influx of visitors from around the country and globe pursuing the winter and summer experiences boasted by Big Sky Resort.  

“I don’t think we would have received the TIGER grant money the federal government not looked at those technical pieces, and said ‘you’ve cleared that hurdle for a need,’” said David Kack, director of the Western Transportation Institute. 

Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport’s increasing number of nonstop flights from major U.S. cities in recent years and plans to add an additional 70,000 square feet of concourse to existing facilities solidifies the urgent need for improvements. 

Fifty percent of employees in Big Sky commute to work, including 33 percent coming from Bozeman alone, according to the 2018 Human Resource and Development Council’s Big Sky Housing Assessment Update and Action Plan. This figure does not include “trade traffic” statistics, which in the 2014 Big Sky Transportation Review prepared by Kack, had 83 percent of Big Sky’s employees commuting from another Gallatin County community.

In greater Gallatin County, where nearly 80 percent of people commute, according to Data USA and the American Community Survey, traffic issues along Lone Mountain Trail could persist as Big Sky grows and sees natural increases in labor and employment needs.

While projects set out by the TIGER grant stand to alleviate those pressures, there is no assurance they will suffice in perpetuity given the steady rates of growth cited by the chamber’s Big Sky Transportation Study Report.

Although it’s easy to suggest, expanding the number of lanes on both U.S. 191 and Lone Mountain Trail isn’t financially feasible, says Kack.

According to Kack, it costs nearly $2 million per lane mile to build a road in a relatively flat area, with that number increasing more than six-fold for stretches such as Gallatin Canyon.

“It really isn’t an option,” Kack said.

The TIGER grant is technically an agreement between Gallatin County and the U.S. Department of Transportation, which will eventually reimburse the county for each measure of infrastructural upgrade set out by the TIGER grant proposal.

All forward progress is pending a vote from the county commissioners to authorize the chairman to sign the agreement, which is currently scheduled to happen March 19.

“The thought is that in the summer of 2020 they will have hired a construction firm to start building these additions,” Kack said.

A simple but effective concept

The keystone to Big Sky’s traffic dilemma might not require upgrades to roadways or buses, but a shift in behavior on the part of commuters.

According to Kack, an integral piece of WTI’s vision is to convert workers driving solo to work into staunch carpoolers and public transit users. His battle is an uphill one, considering the percentage of “drive alone” commuters in Gallatin County, and the icon status of the car to American—and especially American West—culture.

While modern European communities grew within a historically developed space, the U.S.’s fledgling communities spread westward on the premise that long stints of travel in between is nothing to raise an eyebrow at. Eventually, the advent of the motor vehicle cemented the principle.

“We Americans have a love for our cars,” Kack said. “One thing that is telling is how many people actually have a name for their car. They don’t typically name their house, which costs a lot more, and where they spend a lot more time, but somehow there is this emotional attachment to their car.” [

The cost of commuting is the second highest financial sink in a family after housing, Kack said, and average costs for operating a car hover somewhere between $8,000 and $8,500 annually.

Through educating people on the annual cost of their car and commute, and incentivizing carpoolers and public transit goers, Kack and WTI hope to reduce the total number of cars on the roads to and in Big Sky—at least where workforce, community members, and local recreation-seekers are concerned.

“What we see in big cities, large urban areas, is that paid parking is a massive incentive in driving people to public transit,” Kack said. “For example, the lots for Big Sky’s free skier parking is really good land, and eventually someone will have an eye to turn those into housing. One day, we might see the resort charging for parking, and that should incentivize people to carpool and share those costs.”

Combatting the mounting pressures of traffic in Big Sky has no simple answer. Funding from the TIGER grant will allow for much-needed capital improvements, but it’s unclear of what the impact ramping tourism will bring to Big Sky; commuters and locals will be faced with a decision on their role in the equation. 

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