HELENA — Earlier this year, MTN reported on what Helena city leaders were doing to address concerns about heavy traffic on Custer Avenue. On Wednesday, city commissioners took a look at one proposed plan, but determined they had many more questions they wanted answered before moving forward.
At an administrative meeting, city staff presented a draft memorandum of agreement with the Montana Department of Transportation that would have started the planning process for a project to upgrade Custer. The proposal talked about widening the road to two traffic lanes in each direction, plus a central turn lane, between Montana Avenue and Benton Avenue. It would have allowed MDT to begin planning and design work, and committed the city to making it a “priority project” and seeking federal funding.
However, commissioners said they were disappointed in the document, and they wanted more information from MDT before they were willing to think about signing on.
City leaders said the draft MOA appeared to limit Helena’s input on the design of the upgraded Custer Avenue. Commissioner Emily Dean said they wanted to have more discussions about issues like whether five lanes was an appropriate width and how to handle pedestrian safety around Four Georgians Elementary School.
They also said the agreement would potentially require the city to cover any costs above the expected price. Commissioner Andres Haladay said that was a concern, particularly because the estimated cost of the project has increased significantly over the last few years.
“There’s a ton of moving pieces,” he said. “We don’t know what design looks like, we have been given numbers ranging from $7 million to $26 million, we’ve been told it can be limited, it can’t be limited – now we’re being presented with a document where we’re going to pick up the bill if there are overages, and we’ve seen a number quoted at $5 million higher.”
According to the MOA, the current estimated cost of the improvements between Montana and Benton is around $17 million.
David Knoepke, Helena’s transportation systems director, said there have been discussions about expanding Custer for at least five or six years.
“There are times during the day, during peak times, that the traffic does cause delays and is problematic at times, so that’s the reason why we’ve been moving forward with projects like this,” he said.
One reason why it has taken longer to move forward is that Custer Avenue is under MDT’s jurisdiction, not the city’s. That means the two sides have been working together on how to proceed.
“Our hope is that, after hearing some of the concerns, that MDT comes back with a more flexible and cooperative agreement that takes into account their requirement but also takes into account the city’s requirements and expectations,” Knoepke said.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Jim Wingerter, MDT’s Great Falls District administrator, said the agency was strongly supportive of this project. He said they wanted to be fully transparent in their dealings with the city and that they were willing to answer the questions city commissioners were asking. However, he noted that there may be limits on what they can do with the plan.
“There are a lot of constraints that we must follow as a state agency, handed down through our federal partners,” he said. “This is a very difficult and very tough situation for everybody to work through and come up with decisions that will be acceptable to everyone.”