FRENCHTOWN — Robin Mackey is already strategizing.
She and husband Mike live up Mill Creek, northeast of here, and works on the outskirts of Missoula. Mackey uses the Frenchtown Frontage Road twice a work day.
Going to work won’t be an issue, she said. There shouldn't be any traffic stoppages at 4 a.m. when the $12.3-million reconstruction project begins in earnest on Monday.
But coming home at 3 p.m.?
“If I know where they’re working, I can figure it out,” she said Thursday at a Montana Department of Transportation open house at Frenchtown High School.
“If they’re doing a lot of work around Frenchtown, I can get off at the Wye and come down that way. If they’re having a lot of stops at that end, do I come to Frenchtown and come back? That's why I like that they're doing this big meeting, to really give good information on it."
The so-called Huson East project will last deep into the fall, with flaggers and signal lights halting traffic for roughly five minutes at a time on up to three stretches of the road.
Traffic won’t be delayed on the frontage road between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., and again between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., the peak hours for hundreds of commuters like Mackey as well as Frenchtown school buses.
The interstate option won’t always be a slam dunk. Come mid-April, a separate repaving project under the auspices of MDT will begin on eastbound I-90, creating two-lane traffic situations and 55 mph zones.
Frenchtown travelers or not, it’s going to be a high-impact season for drivers in the Missoula area. Russell Street Bridge and its approaches will be rebuilt starting in April. The Van Buren interchange, replete with two roundabouts, is in the works. So is reconstruction of two I-90 bridges over the Blackfoot River at Milltown, and work on nearly 50 other interstate bridges between St. Regis and Phosphate.
“It’s really unusual that we have the number of capital improvement projects that we have in this district in such close proximity to each other,” said Bob Vosen, MDT’s Missoula District construction engineer. “With the fuding and those different pools of money it's just the way the whole puzzle fell together. This is the year and you don’t want to pass up on the funding when it’s available. All of our projects came together, and we’re going to make it work.”
The general contractor on Huson East is Schellinger Construction of Columbia Falls. Poteet Construction of Missoula will be in charge of traffic control.
Utility relocations began more than a month ago, and will continue even as road construction hits full tilt.
“It’s a big part of this work, moving utilities,” MDT construction operations engineer Donny Pfeifer said.
Missoula Electric Co-op is relocating poles and electric wires. Three communications companies, AT&T, Blackfoot and Century Link, have lines to move and NorthWestern Energy has a short section of gas line to take care of, Pfeifer said.
Earth movers arrived in force this week, stripping topsoil and moving it with graders. They were shaving it off the top of a high cut on the east end and moving it to a big fill area to the west, Pfeifer said.
“The S corners will be gone,” said Nathan Malmin, Schellinger’s project manager. “Everyone wants them gone. There’ll be a bike path running the whole 11 miles. Four-foot shoulders, a lot flatter slope. Right now there are no shoulders and a steep slope.”
The bike/pedestrian path will be extended from the current one that runs through Frenchtown Pond State Park and in front of the high school.
Malmin and MDT officials heard some recurring concerns: Why no signal lights where the frontage road meets Highway 93 and in front of the high school? Why not extend the improvements to the west beyond Huson? Why not build a walking path over the I-90 overpass, where now there is a minimum shoulder?
The Mackeys voiced the latter one. Frenchtown Elementary School is south of the interstate. The junior high and high schools are on the north side, and it’s dangerous to try to walk between the two, they said.
As even more housing developments are planned, “you’re going to have how many more kids in the summer time or evenings out walking that want to cross over and get a water or an ice cream cone or whatever?” Robin Mackey wondered. “The way it is, a kid thinks he’s over far enough and gets bumped, and it’s nothing to throw him down on that freeway. It’d be devastating to see something like that happen to someone, kid or adult.”
“They can spend money putting a walking path in over off 93 and that, a big fancy one. Why can’t they do a little one down” at the overpass? Mike Mackey wondered.
“I wasn’t aware of that need,” Vosen admitted. “With this project, obviously, we can’t do it. If there’s a need there, we have to be made aware of it, and they can talk to county commissioners and to our staff.”
In the nearly 50 years since Frenchtown Frontage Road was paved, housing developments have bloomed along the road and up drainages like Mill Creek. The narrow and, in some places, winding road has become a safety issue.
Dividing the 11-mile project into thirds, the project timeline calls for roadway excavation in the middle section starting next week, on the east end in May, and past the school and to the west in June. Paving will begin in May and be completed on the main line in August, with paving of the shared-use path finished in September. Weather permitting, by October the roadway should be fully open. Chip seal and stripping is slated for July 2019.
Schellinger Construction built much of the expanded four-lane Highway 93 in the Bitterroot, but large projects have been few and far between lately, Malmin said.
“With the state budget and the cost increases, most projects are not 11 miles long,” he said. “It’s been a really long time since we had an 11-mile highway project.”
“It’s a high-impact project, highly visible because it’s adjacent to the interstate,” Vosen said. “In the grand scheme of things, of big-time projects, it’s a third of the cost of a Russell Street or a Kalispell bypass.
We’re not moving as much dirt, the dollars aren’t there, the complexity isn’t there, but it’s a highly impactful project to the people here.”