Helena IR: ‘We’ve been wanting this’: Tester announces $10.2M grant for Valley Drive in East Helena

by Christine Compton

Valley Drive running past East Helena High School and Highland Meadows Subdivision will be widened and redone after a $10.2 million federal grant was awarded to East Helena, Sen. Jon Tester announced Friday.

The crowd of engineers, Helena-Area Habitat for Humanity representatives and local government employees burst into whoops and applause when Tester broke the news. It was a welcome surprise to most in the room, who had only heard the Montana Democrat was going to announce something about housing.

“This is a super exciting day for East Helena,” East Helena Public Schools Superintendent Dan Rispens said at the press conference, which was held at the high school.

He and East Helena Mayor Kelly Harris high-fived each other during Tester’s speech.

“That was a rush,” Harris said after the conference. “We’ve been wanting this ever since East Helena (High School) opened.”

Combined with around $2 million in city funds, the grant will meet the $12 million ask in the original application, proposal writer Laura Erikson explained. Erikson also works for Stahly Engineering & Associates as a grant writer.

The Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity, or RAISE, proposal was submitted in late February, Erikson said.

The $10.2 million will repave and widen Valley Drive from Plant Road to U.S. Highway 12, Harris said. Sidewalks, bike paths, curbs, gutters and Americans with Disabilities Act ramps will be added, making it a safer commute for schools, neighbors and small businesses in the area. The road will also be expanded to three lanes.

The current road is dotted with potholes and has only one lane going in either direction — a hard system to use when cars and buses are dropping off children at East Helena High and Prickly Pear Elementary School.

The new road will also make it easier to expand housing, East Helena councilman Wes Feist said. The area will hopefully be more attractive to developers and will create a stronger throughline to East Helena’s Main Street.

If the grant hadn’t come through, East Helena would’ve tried to pass a bond for the road repairs, Feist said, so securing a grant is a big relief. Recent bonds and mill levies have had mostly negative results in Lewis and Clark County.

The next steps: Getting the labor to Valley Drive and making use of the funds.

“We’re going to put our noses to the (grindstone), like East Helena does,” Harris said.

Across Montana, other towns received word on their grant proposals. The Blackfeet Tribe received $3.9 million for more accessible roads and Belgrade received $25 million for safety improvements at intersections.

Tester said the RAISE money was partially funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which funnels $108 billion into public transportation statewide.

In 2023, Tester also added the “Buy America” rule to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which requires renovations be made using American-made steel and equipment. He said he was the only member of Montana’s congressional delegation to vote for this funding.