HELENA — On Monday morning, Helena city leaders held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the end of major construction work on Front Street and Neill Avenue.
“The street itself is completed, the utilities are completed, so we are going to be able to open up the street this week,” said Helena city engineer Ryan Leland. “Wednesday morning, it’ll be opened up to traffic.”
In April, the city began an extensive street reconstruction project in the area. The intersection of Front and Neill has been closed to through traffic since the start of September.
Leland said the project began as a way to replace a roughly 100-year-old stormwater main along Front Street. He said the main was outdated and undersized for what the city now needs, and it sometimes backed up, causing flooding.
However, city leaders decided, since they had to dig up the street anyway, they should expand the scope of the work. They fully rebuilt the street to make the area more pedestrian-friendly.
Leland said, previously, Neill Avenue has served as a barrier between the downtown area and the Great Northern Town Center.
“How can we help benefit the Great Northern and the old downtown by trying to get connectivity through there?” he said.
Where Front and Neill meet, crews created a raised intersection – where the street level rises to the level of the sidewalk. Leland said it is designed to calm traffic and make it less intimidating for pedestrians to cross.
“Cars are going to have to slow down; they’re going to have to come up to the level of the pedestrians,” he said. “As far as the safety of the pedestrians, they feel safe because they stay at the same level, they’re more visible.”
They also redesigned the intersection at Neill and Fuller Avenues. Previously, the northbound and southbound lanes on Fuller had split into a Y, meaning it was about 140 feet from one sidewalk to the other. The intersection is now a traditional T-shape, with the pedestrian crossings being closer to 40 feet.
Leland thanked the Montana Department of Transportation for quickly approving the changes to the intersections.
All along the project area, crews installed improved sidewalks and planned more landscaping. In many areas, they had to make adjustments to meet the needs of other people using the streets.
They installed stamped concrete – which Leland said vehicles could drive over or park on – to provide more room for Helena Farmers Market vendors and for trucks turning into the Federal Reserve bank. They readjusted parking and sidewalks in some areas to help Front Street businesses. Outside the Montana State Fund building, they had to cut out and then reinstall piping for the fund’s heated sidewalk system.
“They were able to come out work with us, they were part of the project, so we can’t thank them enough,” Leland said.
For much of the year, the project caused major changes to traffic patterns around the downtown area. Leland thanked everyone who had to adjust to the changes through the spring, summer and fall.
“I can’t say enough for the patience that not only the businesses have done – because this was huge disruption out there – but also the traveling public,” he said.
Leland said there is still some finishing work for crews to do next year, including landscaping, additional concrete and the final chip seal.
The whole project is expected to cost around $4 million. It will be paid for with money from city utility fees and the state gas tax.