Story and photos by Jacob Osborne EBS Editorial Assistant
BELGRADE – On Friday afternoon, a crowd of more than 50 gathered in the northern rim of a gleaming, freshly paved roundabout to celebrate the completion of an infrastructure project four decades in the making.
Hailed as a landmark improvement by officials across the state, the East Belgrade Interchange includes a new exit on Interstate 90 that will give travelers direct access to and from the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport.
A second interchange in Belgrade will send vehicle traffic underneath a railroad running through the center of town. This junction is the only north-south crossing in Belgrade unaffected by train activity, an addition meant to reduce congestion and provide a safer, faster route for rescue vehicles moving from one end of town to the other.
“If you had any emergency calls [across] the tracks and there were stoppages,” said Gallatin County Commission Chairman Steve White, “the best clinic on the planet couldn’t have gotten to them.”
Now, however, through the use of this “below-grade” avenue, trains and automobiles in Belgrade won’t have to compete for the same stretch of roadway.
A mixture of public officials, planners, donors, construction professionals and interested citizens gathered on Friday in the shadow of the new underpass, to commemorate the completion of a mammoth project that finished earlier than planned and under budget, according to White.
The ceremony began with an invocation from Chaplain Warren Heibert and proceeded for 45 minutes as White invited 10 different speakers to take the podium.
Belgrade’s Mayor Russell C. Nelson began the day by thanking all present parties on behalf of his town, which diverted $2 million from its transportation budget to help fund an interchange project that is poised to have a tangible impact not only on businesses and communities in Belgrade, but on the entire Yellowstone region.
Gallatin County also offered up $2 million for the initiative, and the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport donated $3 million of its own.
“This is the first project in Montana where a city, a county, and an airport have pooled money to help fund [it],” Nelson said in his address. “I encourage all to try the areas of the new Belgrade Interchange, and find the best way for you.”
Ted Mathis, from the Yellowstone Airport Authority Board of Directors, lauded the interchange as a boon to Montana air travel, an industry that is growing rapidly. Bozeman Yellowstone International sees over a quarter of all passengers arriving and departing from the state and will for the first time this year serve over a million travelers, according to Mathis.
Kevin McLeary addressed the crowd on behalf of the Federal Highway Administration, Robert Morrison represented Morrison & Maierle, the project’s chief engineering firm, and Josh Walter donned a hard hat and reflective vest to deliver a statement from the lead contractor, Knife River.
Local planners first started imagining a version of the East Belgrade Interchange in the late 1970s, and the duration of this dream was a regular source of wit and cheer on Friday. “It’s really been an enjoyable project to be a part of, and it’s kind of nice to see it come to an end,” Walter said, drawing chuckles from the crowd.
Mike Tooley, the Director of the Montana Department of Transportation, compared the project to Leo Tolstoy’s epic tale: “If it were a novel, it would probably rival ‘War and Peace,’” Tooley said.
Following the reading of congratulatory letters by representatives for Congressman Ryan Zinke, Sen. Steve Daines, and Sen. Jon Tester, the ceremony moved into its final phase. Rick Griffith, the Chairman of the Montana Transportation Commission, came forward to dedicate the project to the late, former MDT Commissioner Patricia Abelin.
Abelin championed the East Belgrade Interchange from its earliest stages, and it is widely agreed among travel officials and those close to the project that without her vision and leadership, the initiative would never have succeeded.
Members of Abelin’s family, including her 98-year-old mother, were present to accept commemorative plaques and christen the new “Patricia Abelin Memorial Bridge,” a structure that will now carry trains above while cars pass underneath.
Though the interchange will bear Abelin’s name, Friday’s ceremony was ultimately celebrating partnerships as much as individuals.
“It was great to see everybody who was in the trenches get recognized,” White said. “This is one of those projects where you really can’t point a finger at a single entity … it was a global thing.”
The East Belgrade Interchange is expected to open to public traffic on June 30.