By Tyler Allen EBS Managing Editor
BIG SKY – On March 6, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines announced that a $10.3 million TIGER grant was awarded to Gallatin County to be used for ambitious improvements along Lone Mountain Trail, also known as Highway 64, and to fund the expansion of the Big Sky Transportation District’s public transit services.
The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant will be used for the construction of approximately seven left-turn lanes, 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.
“Gallatin County is leading the state in economic growth,” Daines said in a statement. “This grant will help the county meet the infrastructure demands of this rapid growth and continue creating good-paying jobs in the community.”
The grant might also help the advancement of certain affordable housing projects in Big Sky, such as the Powder Light subdivision, which was stalled by a vote of Gallatin County commissioners who cited the lack of a turn lane on Lone Mountain Trail as a potential safety hazard.
Although still in litigation with the county, Powder Light developer Scott Altman is cautiously optimistic. “Our hope is that the additional infrastructure will help remove some of the barriers … to construct affordable housing in the future,” he said.
Protected turn lanes are slated for the intersections at Ace Hardware-where the Powder Light housing entrance would be located-the Big Sky Medical Center, Roxy’s Market, and the entrance to Big Sky Resort, among others that have seen numerous vehicle collisions in recent years.
“There are so many needs to address with the growth [in Big Sky],” said David Kack, coordinator for the Big Sky Transportation District and program manager for the Western Transportation Institute. “This is a great way to address many of the community’s critical needs without finding a local funding source.”
One of the challenges to funding such improvements is that the 9-mile stretch of highway straddles two counties and serves the unincorporated community of Big Sky.
Kack said that he didn’t expect to hear about the grant application’s status until April or May, and was surprised by the news. “When you look at the sheer number of proposals they get, you have about a 6 percent chance of being selected.”
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 turning lanes.
WTI wrote the proposal for the TIGER grant in conjunction with Bozeman engineering firm Sanderson Stewart, and it was submitted by Gallatin County on behalf of Big Sky in October 2017. Kack said the design process for roadwork could begin as early as this summer, with construction likely happening in two phases during the 2019 and 2020 construction seasons.
The money for the transportation district is intended to address the issues of over-capacity in the area’s transit system.
Big Sky Chamber of Commerce CEO Candace Carr Strauss said she was ecstatic when she heard the news. “We’re honored that the Big Sky community trusts us to be the catalyst for tackling some of the major infrastructure-related challenges that we’re facing with our growth here,” she said.
Strauss stressed the importance of the partnership among the various stakeholders in receiving the grant, entities that include WTI, Sanderson Stewart, the transportation district, the Big Sky Community Organization, the chamber of commerce, and both Gallatin and Madison counties for adopting the transportation study in their growth plans. She also pointed to the funding from the Big Sky Resort Area District tax board in making the initial study possible.
The pedestrian tunnel beneath Lone Mountain Trail will cost nearly $660,000 and will connect the trail along the highway to the Meadow Village.
“That is just a critical connection for our community trail system, because it connects the trails on both sides of the highway,” said Big Sky Community Organization Executive Director Ciara Wolfe. A pedestrian bridge is also slated for construction over the West Fork of the Gallatin River, along Little Coyote Road.
“This proposal was a big focus on rural economic development,” Kack said. “We really played up that Lone Mountain Trail was the only public access to Big Sky, which is a big economic driver for Montana.”
The funding is available to Gallatin County until 2025, but Kack said they anticipate that the project will be completed as quickly as possible.
Reporting was contributed by EBS Senior Editor Sarah Gianelli.