COLUMBIA FALLS – It might be the most difficult, and shortest highway problem in Western Montana.
But with traffic to and from Glacier National Park soaring in recent years, it’s a complicated problem which desperately needs a solution to save lives.
During his tenure as Missoula District Administrator, Ed Toavs and his team with the Montana Department of Transportation have accomplished an amazing amount of work.
A majority of the Kalispell Bypass was finished, major freeway interchanges have been built, dozens of bridges restored or completely replaced on I-90, in the Bitterroot and in Missoula.
Even the dilapidated bridge at Hungry Horse is gone. But just west of there is a project which still needs a fix. And Toavs, who is retiring from MDT to go into the private sector, says Badrock Canyon is extremely difficult. Perched at the bottom of the cliff between Columbia Mountain and the Flathead River, it’s a highway where lives have been lost and solutions haven’t been found.
“If you go behind the guardrail and look up at Columbia Mountain, there’s this large ledge up there,” Toavs said. “And that’s fractured shale on that entire face of Columbia Mountain and so the geotechs have told me if that gets disturbed too much you might block half of the Flathead River. So definitely some concern there.”
The problem is essentially one of space. if you can’t do a traditional “cut” on the mountain, how do you find room for the four lane, straighter highway that’s needed?
“We could do, say a cantilevered structure throughout part of that canyon, but that makes the project cost $30 million. That’s hard to justify for a rural section of highway for one and a half miles. If we could do, say, an earthen retaining wall it could cut the cost in half. That is doable.”
Additionally, Toavs says there are wildlife crossings to consider, the boat launch on the river and a gas main under the highway.
“I think of it in two ways. You have a social aspect and an engineering aspect. The social aspect, our cultural, is you have a couple of tribes, the Blackfeet and the CSKT that have some interest in there, some historical interest. So that has to be acknowledged and respected. ”
What has Toavs is worried is the present danger. While the road from Hungry Horse east, and west to Columbia Falls, is all four lane, with a path for bikes and hikers, but no provisions at all in Badrock. But he says at least US 2 on either side is finished.
“If we can figure out a way to navigate doing some work on the river side and staying out of the rock areas, you have a fundable project at some point. And that needs to happen. Because as traffic increases more and more and more, and also bicycle and pedestrian traffic with the shared use path, that becomes more and more dangerous. And more and more of a safety issue in the summertime. And that’s something that we just need to avoid.”
The MDT has hired an engineering firm to begin looking at possible solutions for the highway through Badrock Canyon, and hopefully those ideas could help with the question of how to pay for the improvements.
Reporting by Dennis Bragg for MTN News