Helena commission gets update on planning for Custer Avenue upgrades

Custer Avenue Traffic
Posted at 7:48 PM, Mar 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-09 21:48:31-05

HELENA — Helena leaders got an update Wednesday on a possible way forward for upgrading Custer Avenue.

David Knoepke, the city’s transportation systems director, gave a presentation to the Helena City Commission at their administrative meeting.

“I do think that this corridor is important,” he said. “I think we can make it work so it’s safe for everyone.”

Leaders have identified improving safety and addressing congestion on Custer as priorities for years. Because the street is managed by the Montana Department of Transportation, the city has been in discussions with MDT about a possible agreement on how to move forward.

MDT recently completed a feasibility study on the Custer Avenue project. It called for a five-lane roadway and traffic signals, with sidewalks on the north side and a shared-use path on the south side. The latest cost estimate would be $20.7 million to finish the section between Montana and Benton Avenues. MDT determined $20.4 million would be available through federal urban road funding, potentially leaving $300,000 to be covered from other sources.

Knoepke says the city wants to make sure the upgraded road has the feel of an urban street, not a highway. To that end, they want to see additional traffic calming measures, like narrower lanes and curb extensions. They also want enhanced and highly visible crosswalks to ensure safety for pedestrians.

It’s been proposed to set up a “Technical Design Committee” to refine the project’s design. It would include one representative from MDT, one from the Federal Highway Administration and two from the city. Leaders said that would help ensure the city’s priorities are kept in mind.

Knoepke also said the design committee could be able to adjust the initial cost estimate, which he suggested was likely based on predicting a high amount of risk.

Leaders said Wednesday that MDT has been updating its policies on handling the routes it manages within cities. That makes them more optimistic they can get to an agreement that will work for both the state and Helena.

“I think we can get to a place where the designs of these roads will be more palatable to local jurisdictions including the city of Helena in the Custer Avenue project,” said interim city manager Thomas Jodoin.

The commission looked at a possible agreement with MDT last year, but they raised concerns that the city wouldn’t have enough input on the design and could be left responsible to cover any cost overruns.