Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Weighs in on transportation plan

| October 27, 2021 7:00 AM

I only recently was made aware of this planning process and draft plan. And so unfortunately I only have an hour or so to review some highlights and offer some observations.

First, I want to thank you, city staff, your Project Advisory Committee for the hundreds of hours I’m certain they’ve invested in bringing the draft plan before you. As a former regional planner I am well aware of what a huge task this is.

Second, I want to stress the complexity of this Plan at this time in Columbia Falls history. For no other time in the city’s history has there been such a dramatic change in both land use functions and real estate market conditions. The Valley overall is and will likely continue to experience unprecedented growth and change. And due to Columbia Falls proximity to Whitefish and Glacier National Park will be both directly and indirectly impacted in ways we can’t begin to imagine. So…please keep a very open and flexible mind about future changes and impacts.

Third, urban form. Like all cities facing high growth rates it is imperative that the desired urban form be one of infill and increased density. Not only will land prices and infrastructure costs (both construction and maintenance) suggest such a pattern, but all related social, economic and environmental conditions dictate it. Typically transportation plans follow land use and growth management plans. They are the implementation vehicle to achieve many of the land use goals and objectives. Without the ability to review and compare the City’s adopted land use and growth management plans against this transportation plan I can only recommend to Council that whatever transportation system improvements are adopted adhere to and reinforce sustainable growth management goals. I am at a loss to predict when transit can/will become a realistic and viable option for the Valley – but it is needed for a growing senior and low income, tourist oriented workforce.

Also, annexation. As the city continues to grow it must be proactive in initiating annexation measures to expand municipal control of development with uniform development standards into unincorporated areas.

Fourth. Highway 2, the railroad and the river. Unlike most cities Columbia Falls has a triple challenge of being on a major state highway, a major river and is cut up by several active rail lines. These not only frustrate local auto, bike and pedestrian movements but they also create jurisdictional and public safety concerns. Ideally some type of truck/through traffic bypass south of Hodgson Road would lead non-local and through traffic over to Highway 206 enroute to the Canyon, West/East Glacier and Canada. Without this option the only choice the city has is to implement strong traffic calming measures and create secondary truck and hopefully pedestrian/bike routes where possible. Right now the existing system is entirely auto oriented with nearly no bike and pedestrian friendly routes of any length or functional patterns (Talbott is great for going east/west and connects well with three schools — if you live in immediately surrounding neighborhoods but does not effectively connect with the CBD, Tamarack or the North Fork safely.

Fifth. Existing conditions v. projected conditions.

For reasons already mentioned above, a 2040 time horizon for project purposes is too short (only 19 years away). 2050 could even be too short for major infrastructure planning purposes. One need only go back to about 2015 to witness the explosion of visitor traffic and 2020 increased that substantially. What seems clear nationwide is that all mid- to upper management personnel who have the option and financial ability to work from home and are not place bound are choosing smaller, non-metro areas to live in (and NW Montana is a perfect candidate).

Growth projections. If we compare Columbia Falls population change between 2000 and 2020 it was plus-46% which was during a major national recession.

Using that low a figure to project a 2040 population seems very low and all other transportation variables are based upon it for trip generation rate purposes.

Meaning that ADT, levels of service, accident estimates, etc. are all likely low, especially when growth rates of 1.5% for highways and 1.1% are used for arterials and collectors – this could result in huge undercounts.

Sixth. Development standards. The only section that discusses what kind of new development street standards (and I would argue some redevelopment) is within Chapter 10: Policy Plan. The street cross sections presented here offer options for auto, transit, bike and pedestrian movement along with lighting and landscaping. We need multiple-use corridors that present mixed-use travel modes.

We need traffic calming. We need improved shoulders. We need roundabouts. We need reduced speed limits in many areas.

To close, rather than being or seeing ourselves as “a through community” we need to start seeing ourselves as a destination community. Auto and truck traffic in particular need to be re-envisioned to be locally bound and not just an inconvenient slowdown along a long highway.

Pat Malone

Columbia Falls

Note: This letter was Malone’s thoughts, as sent to city leaders, on the transportation plan.

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