First day delays five times what expected
This article has been updated as of 9 a.m. MST, Aug. 19.
By Bay Stephens EBS LOCAL EDITOR
BIG SKY – The Montana Department of Transportation began installing new guardrails in the Gallatin Canyon on the stretch between Moose Creek Flat Campground and the Hellroaring Trailhead on Aug. 15. Though the first day of construction saw up to 2 hour delays, MDT has been adjusted the time of day that construction takes place, as well as timing of traffic signals to lower delays to the target 15-minute mark.
As of press time on Wednesday, Aug. 14, EBS received multiple reports of commutes extended by upwards of 1 hour, 15 minutes, making what normally would have been an hour commute for some into a 2 hour 15 minute drive.
According to William Fogarty, MDT district administrator, as flaggers and signals adjust to the traffic flow and improve communication, delays should continue to work down to the 15-minute range. If long delays continue, MDT will explore other options to help commuters.
“MDT will never ask the public to add hours to their commute for a project,” Fogarty said. “We are working as hard as we can to adjust in the short-term.”
MDT officials said on Aug. 14 that they visited with contractors in the canyon to assess the backup and address causes for the extended delays.
The project’s completion is scheduled for Nov. 15, though delays to the timeline may occur depending on weather and other factors, MDT said.
Construction is scheduled to take place on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., though Fogarty said in a statement on Aug. 8 that crews were planning to perform the bulk of the work between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. to accommodate peak travel times on the heavy commuter route.
As of Aug. 19, the morning commuter traffic between 8-9 a.m. in the canyon was not delayed.
Construction on the 11.2-mile stretch of US Highway 191 is being done in 1-mile chunks as crews replace guardrail beginning at Moose Creek Flat moving toward Hellroaring Trailhead. MDT originally broadcasted that commuters should expect average delays of 15 minutes in addition to delays from normal traffic.
“If it normally takes you 1 hour and 15 minutes during rush hour to travel through highway 191, you would plan for 1 hour and 30 minutes,” Fogarty said on Aug. 8.
A pilot car is facilitating traffic through the single-lane closures. Fogarty requests that drivers remain patient, observe signs and flaggers and drive safely through the project area. If drivers want to avoid delays entirely, he advised traveling the canyon before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m.
“This is a narrow corridor and no one wants to get hurt—workers and drivers alike,” Fogarty said.
According to the MDT project website, 29,000 linear feet of existing guardrail sections will be replaced with “new guardrail to meet modern standards by using stronger materials.” Crews will also raise the height of the guardrail, perform erosion stabilization efforts in 17 locations to bolster the effectiveness of the guardrail at keeping vehicles on the roadway.
Fogarty said the timing of the project is impacted by the proximity to the Gallatin River, requiring MDT to obtain special permits to work adjacent to an active channel, permits that restrict construction to periods of low flow.
Guardrails have played a substantial role in protecting lives in the Gallatin Canyon and across the state, according to the project website: Of the 39 single vehicle roadway departure crashes in the canyon between Jan. 1, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2013, 26 resulted in guardrail collisions.
At this point, the Big Sky Transportation District isn’t modifying bus schedules for Skyline and Link to the Peak routes, according to David Kack, district coordinator and program manager for the Western Transportation Institute. He doesn’t expect the delays to affect the bus schedules too much, but added that they won’t know for certain until construction is in full force.
“If those delays get to be pretty significant, we’ll have to adjust to make sure people make it to work on time,” Kack said.
Weather will play an obvious role in the project’s timely completion.
“Snow is a big factor in this corridor,” Fogarty said. “If there is a lot of snow in October and November, it could push the project back. However, MDT is confident that the work can be completed by the end of the year, before winter sets in.”
EBS will be updating this article as additional information becomes available.
STATEMENT OF THE MDT (from Aug. 14):
Construction delays for the Gallatin Guardrail project on Highway 191 have exceeded anticipated wait times of 15 minutes. Currently, delays are up to one hour in peak travel. Traffic delays have been reported to begin at the Lava Lake Trailhead, and extend through the construction zone near Moose Creek Flat Campground.
The project has slowed travelers down and the Montana Department of Transportation apologizes for the negative impacts on your commutes, recreation and other travel through the area. We are working with our contractor and personnel on-site to develop a plan to reduce these wait times.
District leaders are fully engaged and currently working on a solution. Further details on the plan moving forward will be provided by close of business today, August 14, 2019. The Montana Department of Transportation is committed to safe and efficient traffic control and is immediately working on improving this situation.
If you have questions or comments about the project, please contact our project hotline at 406-207-4484 during business hours or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To sign up for text updates on the Gallatin Guardrail project, text “GALLATINRAIL” to 41411.