A cluster on Custer: Helena anticipates advancement in roadway expansion project soon
Progress on a much-needed upgrade to Helena's Custer Avenue has stalled since March of 2022, but city staff is confident the city and state transportation department will come to an agreement within the next few months.
For years, the city of Helena and Montana Department of Transportation have been in negotiations over the massive project that would widen Custer Avenue from three lanes to five lanes, provide improved pedestrian transportation travel and realign the spaghetti bowl of utilities under the thoroughfare from Montana Avenue to the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds. That portion of road is under MDT jurisdiction.
"The need for improvements on Custer Avenue is pressing. Traffic volumes are increasing on Custer Avenue, with congestion during peak times," MDT's project webpage titled "The Cluster on Custer" states, citing schools and local events, particularly at the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds, as major contributors to congestion.
MDT Traffic Engineer Shane Forsythe said in 2017 when the traffic study and long-range growth projections for the project were initially done, that long-term growth in traffic on Custer Avenue could be as high as 2% per year. However, Forsythe made it clear that traffic projections are something of a "crystal ball," and there is no way to know the exact amount of growth an area might see.
"Everybody is on the same page now," Helena Transportation Systems Director David Knoepke said during a phone interview. "We hope to see the agreements signed in the next three or four months."
Knoepke said getting this right as one of the main arteries in Helena's network is critical. He said the city has pressed Montana Department of Transportation on two main concerns: one, a design with a neighborhood feel, complete sidewalks, boulevards, accessibility ramps and vegetation; and two, the project's management.
"The discussions have been productive about what the city is looking for," Knoepke said. "We'd like to see more of a neighborhood feel versus a field of asphalt."
He said compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act is at the top of the list.
Amenities such as "accessible facilities for all modes of travel," enhanced pedestrian crossings and a roundabout at the intersection of the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds and Benton Avenue are also proposed.
"We want to build a corridor that can check off as many of those (pedestrian safety and accessibility) boxes as we can," Knoepke said.
The other aspect to the project the city has pushed for is that the city administer the project instead of MDT.
"MDT has a vast amount of experience, but we have that local perspective that is going to be important," Knoepke said.
He said the local oversight can also "sometimes decrease the delivery date."
City Manager Tim Burton said final decisions have yet to be made, but that MDT will likely have the city manage the project.
Kristine Fife represents MDT as the contracted communications manager for the Custer Avenue improvement project. Fife confirmed MDT is willing to allow Helena to administer the project.
The latest estimated cost to complete the work from Montana Avenue to Benton Avenue is about $20.7 million.
Fife said the project is mostly funded through state and federal gas tax dollars, but about $300,000 of the tab has yet to be picked up.
She said the "funding available doesn't meet the total cost," and without it, the project remains "in the vault."
Fife deferred questions about whether Helena is expected to contribute the remaining funds to MDT Great Falls District Administrator Jim Wingerter, who did not immediately return a request for comment.
She characterized the project as "currently on hold," and said "there is not a lot going on" since the project's feasibility study was completed and presented to the Helena City Commission in March 2022.
Still Knoepke is confident agreements can be reached in the near future.
"I think the work we've all done so far has been great," he said. "We hope to get the agreements in place soon."
He said once that is completed, the next 12 to 18 months will be spent hammering out a design that works for the project stakeholders, which in addition to the city and MDT includes two Helena Public Schools, Lewis and Clark County, property owners, business owners and the owners of the Yellowstone Pipeline, a 10-inch steel line transporting oil 531 miles across three states and runs underneath Custer Avenue.
Knoepke said recent work to remove vegetation and push back a fence line along Custer Avenue was related to the pipeline's easement, not the forthcoming road work.
Though the public engagement process for the project has already begun, Fife said it's during the design phase those efforts ramp up.
"Any time you're dealing with a project like this, there are always multiple needs to consider," she said. "Particularly with this corridor, there are a lot of interests to be considered."
Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government.