Tester tours bypass project

Daily Inter Lake

by Seaborn Larson

Federal and state officials met at the U.S. 93 Alternative Route construction site in Kalispell on Friday to survey the work completed during the last seven months.

U.S. Sen. Tester, D-Mont., who toured the northern bypass section for the first time Friday, said the project is as much about the economics as it is about transportation.

“It’s about the economy,” he said. “I think this is going to really do some positive things for downtown Kalispell. It accomplishes a lot of things in one project, so I’m glad to see it coming to a finish.”

Tester’s van traveled from the unfinished bridge near Old Reserve Drive to the construction work at Four, Three and Two Mile drives. Representatives from LHC and the Montana Department of Transportation led the tour, explaining mechanisms used to drive pilings at bridge sites and the materials used in grading the roads.

Jim Mitchell, construction manager for the Department of Transportation, said the project is ahead of schedule and, unforeseen problems aside, should be ready for traffic in the fall.

“We’re on track to be a little ahead of schedule,” Mitchell said. “There’s always things that could come up in June. It’s nice to be on the front end of the schedule and have that flexibility in case the weather does change.”

Mitchell said the next phases of construction include setting more beams on the bridge looming over U.S. 2 on the south end of the second bypass phase. By the first week of June, Mitchell expects to be pouring concrete on the bridge over Old Reserve Drive and completing the bridge at Two Mile Drive.

At Three Mile Drive, the center of the bypass project, crews are moving the last of the massive loads of dirt relocated by bypass construction.

“There’s only about 5,000 to 6,000 yards left out of a million yards,” Mitchell said. “That’s a big milestone for us to have that excavation done.”

Mike Tooley, director of the Montana Department of Transportation, accompanied Tester to Kalispell on Friday to see the work completed since he was here for the groundbreaking ceremony in October.
“Last time there was a big earth mover and gold shovels and a good word said, and it was a field,” Tooley said. “The changes have just been amazing.”

Tooley made the decision late last year to move forward with the project even though federal funding for the $34 million project was in question. Since the construction start in October, Congress has passed a five-year, $305 billion federal transportation bill allowing projects such as the Kalispell bypass to proceed across the United States.

Tooley echoed Tester’s comment, citing projects such as the bypass as an economic stimulus for Northwest Montana.

“There’s a lot of people working here now but I’m looking forward to the jobs left behind and the ones that are going to follow,” Tooley said.

“You can see the development that’s happening around this piece of infrastructure and that’s what it’s about.”
Tester praised all parties involved in the project, including LHC and the Montana Transportation Department for their work through the winter. He also lauded Tooley’s decision to move ahead on the project without federal funding fully secured, as well as Congress for the foresight to fund projects capable of bolstering economic growth.

“I applaud his courage and I think it’s really important at the federal level that we have a good long-term, financially sustainable highway bill,” he said.

“Projects like these are going to be the kind of projects that move our country forward in the 21st century.