Ravalli Republic: Millions in federal funding headed toward Ravalli County infrastructure projects

by Jessica Abell

More than $26 million in federal funding for rural infrastructure projects across Montana was included in the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, with more than $3.8 million headed toward Ravalli County and the surrounding area.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Surface Transportation Block Grant (STBG) program announced the awards, which includes $1.6 million for Bitterroot Trail preservation in Missoula and Ravalli counties. The Bitterroot Trail stretches approximately 50 miles from Missoula to Hamilton, connecting local communities in the Bitterroot Valley and attracting cyclists from throughout the county.

Retired racer Les Korcala, 63, rides the Bitterroot Trail from his home in Florence to Hamilton and back bi-weekly. He said that the cracks in the path are not only hard on the narrow tires used on many road bikes, but also on the rider’s body.

“Because you know this is a paved road, there’s a lot of cyclists coming from across country. This is a very famous path,” he said. “There’s a lot of cracks on the face so there’s a lot of harshness on the bike and it’s very hard to ride on the road bike with the narrow tires. With a car, the car can absorb a lot, but here, your body, your shoulders, your elbows, your legs absorb that risk. So it’s really hard.”

The RAL Trail in Hamilton was awarded $1.5 million for expansion. The trail currently runs from Golf Course Road to Daly Elementary School. The RAL Trail was created to offer a safe route for pedestrians and cyclists following the untimely death of 9-year-old Robert Anthony Leonardi. Leonardi lost his life in a hit-and-run crash on Hamilton’s Golf Course Road in July 2019, near where the trail begins. The trail expansion is planned to run 1 mile on the north side of Golf Course Road. It will start near the entrance to the existing RAL Trail, take a right on Kurtze lane and end at Daly School.

“It’s like an extension of the current RAL Trail,” said Robert’s mother, Alyce Leonardi. “The whole point of us applying for it is just to make Golf Course Road safer after Robert was hit and killed there. That has been our whole goal for four years is to somehow make Golf Course Road safer.”

“I guess it’s just kind of the only way that we just keep plugging along as we just try to do better things for this area. That has been the biggest one that we’ve wanted to accomplish, so we were thrilled to receive it.”

Matching funds will still need to be raised to complete the project.

The Marcus Street Path in Hamilton was awarded $764,000 for construction. The project is aimed at addressing bicycle and pedestrian safety along the busy corridor leading in and out of downtown. The project also recently received funding as part of an $870,000 federal transportation grant for improvements to Marcus Street and the intersection of Marcus and U.S. Highway 93. The grants will fund construction of a 10-foot wide path on the south side of Marcus Street between U.S. Highway 93 and Silverberry, the entrance to The Arbors. Hamilton City Planner Matthew Rohrbach said the Marcus Street Path project is focused on providing a safe connection for the residential development the city is seeing on the east side of town.

“Really just making sure we’re connecting neighborhoods, commercial areas, employment centers, schools — it’s really focused on safety,” he said.

Non-motorized connectivity east of U.S. Highway 93 has always been a challenge, according to Rohrbach.

“When we get those projects on Golf Course, on Marcus Street, some of our key corridors, it really starts to help improve some of that connectivity, so that all those residences on the east side, they can really start to have a connected non-motorized network and really start to incorporate biking, and walking as viable modes of daily transportation,” he said.

Residents who live in walkable communities see a wide array of benefits, ranging from public health to an enhanced sense of community.

“There’s a lot of health benefits to just incorporating walking as just an everyday activity, not just as a form of exercise, but as a form of commuting to work, commuting to school,” Rohrbach said. “There’s all sorts of studies on mental health benefits, and also just kind of a sense of community. One of the things that we heard a lot when we were doing our comprehensive planning work is that people really value the small-town character of Hamilton, and a lot of that came down to walkability — being able to safely and conveniently take care of a lot of your daily needs by walking. Running into people on the street kind of helps form that sense of place, that sense of community, on top of all those public health benefits from walking.”

Seventy-eight thousand dollars in funding will also go toward resurfacing the Woodside Pedestrian Pathway along MT 373 in Ravalli County.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester was the only member of Montana’s congressional delegation to support the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included $2.82 billion for Montana roads, bridges and highways. The bill also included funding for broadband projects, water projects through the Bureau of Reclamation, and funding to reduce wildfire risk. According to Tester, more than $7.7 million of the funding will go to projects in Montana towns with fewer than 5,000 people.

“Too many folks in Washington D.C. don’t understand the challenges rural Americans face and the critical role our roads and bridges play in keeping communities connected,” Tester said in a statement released last Thursday. “That’s why I worked with Republicans and Democrats to pass my bipartisan infrastructure law, so we can invest in Montana’s roads, bridges, high-speed internet, water systems, and more to help grow our economy and strengthen our rural communities. This funding will help small towns from Sunburst to Whitehall stay connected, and I’m proud to see these federal dollars going to projects that will serve the Treasure State.”