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Come 2011, bicyclists and pedestrians will no longer have to navigate the dicey Capitol Interchange to cross Interstate 15 on their way to East Helena or back to the Queen City.

The Montana Department of Transportation on Tuesday announced plans to build a 10-foot-wide tunnel beneath the highway, connecting the Colonial Drive-Broadway intersection with 18th Street, south of the traffic signal at Wal-Mart, and allowing folks on bikes and on foot an easy way around the area’s vehicle traffic.

Residents using the tunnel, to be situated just south of the Capitol Interchange, will cross Highway 12 at the traffic signal, providing access to the East Helena Pedestrian Trail, which runs along the north side of the roadway.

The $1 million tunnel project will come on the heels of other changes to the Capitol Interchange, set to begin next year. MDT will spend $2.2 million to realign entrance and exit ramps on the interchange, addressing traffic-safety concerns.

The tunnel was initially proposed in a 2003 study that analyzed a slew of changes to the I-15 corridor through Helena, including the new South Helena Interchange, the planned Custer Avenue Interchange and other related projects.

The department is asking for public input on the tunnel plan.

MDT spokeswoman Charity Watt Levis said workers will likely close some lanes of I-15 to dig beneath the interstate, redirecting traffic as the project progresses.

The Capitol Interchange is narrow and doesn’t provide much room for pedestrians and bicyclists, Levis said.

“It’s not an ideal situation,” she said. “So this will be a welcome addition.”

City Commissioner Alan Peura, an avid bicyclist and a state employee, said he often dodges traffic over the Capitol Interchange in order to access the state’s motor pool lot on the east side of I-15. He knows some of his co-workers and friends refuse to cross the interchange on foot or bike.

“Certainly that is a frightening experience to navigate … simply because of the speed of traffic, the width of the roadway and the multiple directions vehicle traffic is moving,” Peura said. “I think MDT’s proposal is an excellent suggestion.”

For more information about the project, call MDT Great Falls District Administrator Mick Johnson at (406) 454-5880.

Written comments may be sent to MDT’s Great Falls Office at P.O. Box 1359, Great Falls, MT 59403. Note comments are for project CN 6226000.

Click here to comment on the underground I-15 tunnel idea at the Capitol Interchange and enter the project code CN 6226000.

Reporter Larry Kline: 447-4075 or larry.kline@helenair.com

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