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Community meetings attempt to address Big Sky traffic issues

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By Tyler Allen EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – On Jan. 19, a westbound vehicle was stopped at the entrance to Roxy’s Market on Lone Mountain Trail when a van rear-ended the car, sending it into oncoming traffic. The three-vehicle accident resulted in minor injuries to two of the drivers who were treated at the Big Sky Medical Center.

Big Sky Fire Department Chief William Farhat pointed to a lack of turn lanes on the highway.

“If there was a middle lane, [the driver] would have been able to [turn safely],” Farhat said.

More than 30 community members gathered in the Big Sky Chapel basement on Jan. 27 to address traffic hazards of Lone Mountain Trail such as the Jan. 19 incident, and other transportation issues in Big Sky.

This was the first of three identical meetings organized by the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce – the other two were held Feb. 3 and 4 after EBS went to press –and it was apparent traffic is a significant community concern.

Kitty Clemens, the chamber’s executive director, opened the discussion by explaining that the purpose of this effort was to get feedback from the members of this unincorporated community, “because we don’t have a city hall we can all check in with.”

Clemens described how Big Sky’s main transportation arteries – Lone Mountain Trail and Highway 191 – are under the control of the Montana Department of Transportation because they’re state and federal highways, respectively.

A presentation by the Western Transportation Institute’s David Kack followed Clemens’ opening remarks.

With funds from its travel corridor resort tax appropriation, the chamber spent “no more than $5,000,” according to Kack, hiring WTI to conduct this initial information gathering for the Big Sky area.

Kack referenced the Jan. 22 article in this newspaper titled “Affordable housing: Big Sky’s ‘No. 1 issue’” and said transportation is probably “issue 1-A.”

He described the complexities of solving traffic issues in an unincorporated community that spans both Gallatin and Madison counties. “When there’s an issue in Big Sky who do I go talk to? There’s not a city commission that’s addressing this,” Kack said.

Big Sky taxpayers are paying nearly $540,000 in road taxes to Gallatin County and $700,000-plus to Madison County, according to Kack. None of that money sent to Gallatin County – and very little of the Madison County revenue – is being reinvested in road construction or maintenance in Big Sky, he added.

A request would need to be made to both counties to ask MDT for an area transportation plan that would be conducted by a private consultant firm and paid for by funds from both counties and MDT. A project of any significance on Highway 191 or Lone Mountain Trail would need to be added to MDT’s Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan.

The STIP is updated every year, and currently outlines all of the major construction projects planned statewide through 2019. Right now, there are no Big Sky projects on the document.

“What David is talking about gives us a road map for a 20-year vision,” Clemens said. “To get projects qualified you need a long-term vision.”

WTI’s David Kack (center) fields concerns about traffic issues from Big Sky residents at a Jan. 27 meeting hosted by the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce. PHOTO BY TYLER ALLEN

WTI’s David Kack (center) fields concerns about traffic issues from Big Sky residents at a Jan. 27 meeting hosted by the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce. PHOTO BY TYLER ALLEN

After the presentation, the meeting broke into two focus groups led by Kack and his WTI colleague Patrick McGowen. Large maps of the area’s roads were spread out on tables and attendees were asked what and where major traffic issues exist.

Big Sky resident Steve Johnson suggested installing “No Left Turn” signs on all Lone Mountain Trail intersections without protected turn lanes.

For traffic heading westbound from Highway 191 to Town Center that would include the intersections at the Big Sky Medical Center and Roxy’s Market, funneling traffic to Ousel Falls Road and eastbound on Town Center Avenue.

“That’s not practical as a business owner,” said John Romney, a Big Sky Town Center developer.

Many in attendance suggested installing a center – or “suicide” – lane on Lone Mountain Trail, that would offer protected turning for both directions of traffic along the entire stretch of road from 191 to Town Center.

McGowen said that installing a traffic signal at Lone Mountain Trail and Ousel Falls Road would have a ripple effect, slowing down vehicles in both directions.

“If you built 1,000 units of affordable housing [in Big Sky] it would take 1,000 cars off the road,” McGowen added.

Greg Hunt, who spends half the year in Big Sky and the other half in Hong Kong, lives in the Firelight neighborhood on Ousel Falls Road and says the traffic in Big Sky spoils his enjoyment of the area.

“What about incorporation? I don’t know who [runs] anything here,” Hunt said.

After the meeting concluded, Clemens talked about what a lack of incorporation means for the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce.

“Our chamber does a little more because we end up project managing [since] there’s no city staff,” Clemens said, adding that transportation is one leg of a three-legged “place-making” stool that includes housing and open space.

Clemens said traffic in Gallatin Canyon and Lone Mountain Trail is at “carrying capacity right now,” and if Big Sky doesn’t have safe, dependable roads, community businesses could see a negative effect on the number of customers from Bozeman and elsewhere in Gallatin County.

“We have to think about repeat business,” she said. “The best customers are the ones you already have.”

WTI hopes to present recommendations to the chamber board in March, according to Kack.

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