Highway 64 on their minds
Chiming in about how to improve Big Sky’s main street
When it comes to Highway 64, the stakes are high because it’s Big Sky’s one link to the outside world.
“If that road fails,” said David Kack, with Montana State University’s Western Transportation Institute.
“Then the whole community is going to fail.”
Kack doesn’t live in Big Sky, but he’s been involved with local transportation issues here for the last 15 years. He helped launch the Skyline bus system and he’s worked closely with the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce on transportation issues. In March of 2016, he prepared a report for the chamber that gathered community concerns about everything from bighorn sheep in the road to trying to turn left into Ace Hardware when traveling downhill on Highway 64.
That 2016 study eventually snowballed into another transportation report in 2017, and now it’s widely accepted that turn lanes are needed up and down Highway 64. But who’s on the hook to pay for the improvements?
Looking for an answer, Kack called the chamber’s attention to a $500 million federal fund supporting Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery. He said he urged the chamber to put together its TIGER grant proposal of just over $10 million, which could pay for the needed turn lanes and other improvements.
But Kack figures there’s a less-than 10 percent chance Big Sky will receive the grant. He said, now, “It’s a political thing,” where the community will try to increase its chance by working with state lawmakers, Sen. Steve Daines’ office and possibly others in the Montana delegation who might be able to influence decision makers inside the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT).
At the monthly meeting in December, chamber board members discussed reaching out to Daines, and that’s part of the process, said Kack.
“With any of these big requests, I’d say without a city council or whatever to do that, it’s not bad to let your congressional staff know, to say ‘Hey, we submitted this grant, this is why we think it’s important,” said Kack.
Meanwhile, in Gallatin County District Court, a lawsuit filed last month by Scott Altman and his development group, A2LD, continues to raise questions about paying for improvements to Highway 64. Kack is following the case, because, “When you look at all those issues on 64, at some point you say, ‘Who is going
to pay to do that?’ ‘Who’s in charge up here?’ Well, I think this lawsuit is going to say, ‘Who is in charge of Highway 64. That’s going to be the core question to the lawsuit.”
The A2LD suit asserts the Gallatin County Commission does not have the authority to order Altman and A2LD to pay for two turn lanes into the proposed Powder Light commercial subdivision. The suit has raised Highway 64’s profile as a funding hot potato, as no government agency or local partnership has stepped in to fund the needed improvements.
If the pending TIGER grant comes through, then it’s federal funding, said Kack, “So we’ve all paid a little bit.”
In its proposal, the Powder Light project sought to provide seed money for a new Rural Improvement District (RID), which is the funding mechanism used to pay for the stoplight at the intersection of Ousel Falls Road and Highway 64. The idea, which Gallatin County Commissioners shot down on Nov. 14, 2017, was to create a comprehensive funding solution for the entire length of 64, also known as Lone Mountain Trail.
But some in Big Sky aren’t excited by the idea of adding another layer of taxing to residents through a community-wide RID for Highway 64/
Lone Mountain Trail.
“We’ve seen a mill levy with the fire department,” said resident Gary Walton. “There was the increase in assessments and taxes have gone up. The school district has two mill levies. And those are all bites out of the apple.”
Like Walton, local realtor Eric Ossorio has followed debate over the road for many years.
“There’s no argument that continued development on Highway 64 will make it less safe,” said Ossorio. “How do we as a community with Montana Department of Transportation accommodate the inevitable growth of Big Sky and increased traffic? And possibly turn lanes aren’t the only answer. Maybe we need to widen the road. Here we have the state of Montana benefiting rather dramatically with bed tax revenues in Big Sky, and here we have a highway that’s putting a lot of these tourists in peril. Maybe the state should be looking at making a safer commute for tourists.”
Kack, with the Western Transportation Institute, added, “You look at what an economic engine Big Sky is to not only Gallatin County, but the whole state. It’s important that that road functions properly.”
The Big Sky Chamber of Commerce agrees and Chamber CEO Candace Carr Strauss said funding for Highway 64 was a topic of cocktail conversations over the holidays.
The chamber board recently formed a transportation committee that’s tasked with ushering the TIGER grant proposal toward approval by USDOT sometime in May. The committee includes Brandon Bang from Big Sky Resort, Greg Lisk owner of Gallatin Riverhouse Grill, Ciara Wolfe of the Big Sky Community Organization, Ryan Hamilton from Town Center, Bayard Dominick from Lone Mountain Land Company and Scott Altman—whose Powder Light project would benefit from federal funds paying for new turn lanes along Highway 64.
“Really, we all benefit,” said Strauss, who will be in Helena starting Jan. 10 for the Montana Chamber of Commerce’s 18th Annual Business Days at the Capitol. The Big Sky Chamber is a silver sponsor of the event, which should provide opportunities for Stauss and others from Big Sky to update Montana lawmakers about the community’s focus on Highway 64.
In Helena, said Strauss, there will be “plenty of time to chat with different folks and let them know what we’re working on.”