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An aerial view of traffic backed up at the U.S. Highway 191 and Highway 64 intersection. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO

As Big Sky traffic increases, so does the wait time for bridge construction 

By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – These days in Big Sky, it’s worth planning ahead. And allowing for extra travel time.

Increased traffic as well as equipment and weather delays are exacerbating wait times at two Big Sky bridge deck construction projects of late. The roughly $2 million Montana Department of Transportation projects are continuing to progress, but MDT officials noted that one of the construction zones—the West Fork bridge project near the entrance of the Conoco Travel Shoppe on Highway 64—is roughly a week behind the anticipated schedule. Crews are working to get back on track.

“We’re catching back up,” said MDT Project Manager Craig Walker. “We had some weather delays and then some equipment delays, which delayed the paving on Phase 1 of the West Fork structure.”

The West Fork bridge project began in late May and MDT originally anticipated completion by the end of July, but it will likely push into the beginning of August after the recent setbacks, Walker said.

Walker acknowledged that wait times at the MDT construction zones have increased in recent weeks due to an increase in the volume of traffic flowing in and out of Big Sky. 

“There is no easy solution to it,” he said. “Whether we work during the day or night, the traffic control is still the same. The traffic control company is doing their best to get everybody through.”

According to recent MDT traffic counts taken just west of the West Fork bridge project, traffic has increased steadily since April. Daily traffic averages for April totaled 5,450 vehicles per day, then increased to 6,953 vehicles per day in May, before jumping to 8,425 daily vehicles in June.

The increased delays have impacted daily commuters within the Big Sky community. On a July 23 EBS Facebook post about the traffic, people voiced their frustration. Commenters discussed wait times of more than an hour, while others made note of the lengthy line of vehicles that can run all the way to Town Center.

Big Sky resident Stephanie Kissell said she usually anticipates a 10-minute wait at the construction zone on her morning commute from Ramshorn, but also said she often witnesses courteous drivers who allow her to turn left onto Highway 64 at the intersection with U.S. Highway 191.

“I would say there’s a little bit of understanding and grace with some of those drivers and I would say [they] are the ones who probably drive it every day,” Kissell said. “But it is inconvenient … I think it’s easy to get mad, but you just kind of have to roll with it.”

During a typical work week, specifically Monday through Friday, MDT witnesses the heaviest traffic counts. The daily average traffic flow on weekdays for the month of June was 9,638 vehicles. By comparison, for the month of June, MDT counted a daily average of 6,018 vehicles on Saturdays and 5,090 vehicles on Sundays.

As construction equipment and materials move throughout the Big Sky community on flat-beds and dump trucks, these delays may hit the building and development industries the hardest. 

Matt Kidd is managing director at CrossHarbor Capital Partners, whose development arm outside the Yellowstone Club is Lone Mountain Land Company. LMLC has seen workers’ daily commute times impacted due to the longer wait times at the bridge construction zones.

“We understand and appreciate necessary infrastructure improvements and it will be good to have the new bridge,” Kidd said in a statement provided to EBS. “We are managing our teams’ schedules accordingly to make the delay less impactful.” 

Property management companies have been forced to adjust to the delays as well. “We manage homes down in that area on both sides of the construction and that’s been a challenge obviously as well, as far as responding and getting to the sites in a timely manner,” said Adam Farr, owner of Ascend Properties. 

Farr, who resides near Lone Peak High School on Highway 191, experiences the delays firsthand and said his employees have made adjustments in their schedules to avoid the times when traffic flows are at their peak, starting as early as 6:30 a.m. Farr noted that some guests of his properties have voiced frustration about the extended wait times, but sees the work as a necessary byproduct of growth.

“It’s manageable,” he said. “Obviously work that needs to be done and so most people are understanding of that. We’re used to road traffic season … This has been a bit of a pain to say the least, but it is what it is.”

Cameras mounted on temporary traffic lights at the construction zones remotely monitor traffic. Wait times fluctuate based on the volume of traffic from any given direction, and camera operators can allow a certain lane of vehicles to progress through the construction zone for longer periods of time as needed, according to Walker.

The West Fork bridge project is the only one behind schedule, while the Middle Fork bridge is progressing as anticipated and should be completed in November. After the West Fork bridge is completed, construction will begin on a bridge located on U.S. Highway 191 roughly two miles north of the Conoco station, and is anticipated to finish in September.

“Plan ahead for travel because we are seeing heavier traffic and longer delays than anticipated,” Walker said. “And then be cautious when driving through the project of workers and equipment.”

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