State let Libby down with shortened sidewalk project, Council Member says

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Tom Booth in the excavator and Jeremiah West at the shovel, both of JAG Grading and Paving, work on the Balsam Street sidewalk in Libby on Tuesday, July 18. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

A sidewalk to provide Libby Elementary School students and other pedestrians safe passage on Balsam Street is coming up short — about five blocks short — and city officials say the Montana Department of Transportation, which granted most of the funding, is responsible.

“I don’t know how MDT can suggest this is anywhere near meeting their mission,” said City Council Member Kristin Smith, who wrote the grant application in 2013 when she was a contract planner for the county and by extension, she said, for the city. “(The resulting project) falls so far from needed improvement.”

JAG Grading and Paving of Alberton, Montana began work on the sidewalk July 10 and anticipated an end date of August 4. The project consists of installing sidewalk, curb and gutter, drainage, fencing, signing and revegetation on the north side of Balsam Street starting at Nevada Avenue and extending two blocks east to Main Avenue — considerably short of the project’s initial scope of about seven blocks, and starting about three years after the grant was awarded.

The city of Libby, in conjunction with Lincoln School District No. 4 and Lincoln County, applied in the fall of 2013 for a grant to “design, plan and construct” 1,850 feet of curb and sidewalk, three crosswalks and signs on Balsam Street from Main Avenue to the drop-off area at Libby Elementary School.

The grant was under the Transportation Alternative Program, a part of MAP-21, or Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century. Created within the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, MAP-21 consolidated a number of separately funded transportation projects — including Transportation Enhancements, Recreational Trails, and Safe Routes to School — into one source of funding.

The city’s application notes that the route “is traveled by area residents, school children and their parents and serves as the primary pedestrian access” to the school and Pioneer Park, and that the only existing sidewalk on the route — a sidewalk that “connects to nothing” — was on the north side of the short bridge spanning Flower Creek.

“School children walking and bicycling to and from school and residents walking to and from the park must use the roadway, placing themselves and others in danger,” the application states.

The application also states the sidewalk would fulfill ADA requirements for access to public facilities such as the school’s track, popular “as part of a physical conditioning plan” with residents such as those diagnosed with asbestos-related lung diseases.

The city estimated the project would cost $224,860. To meet a required 13.42 percent match, the city would contribute “a minimum of” $17,176, while the county and the school district each committed $6,500.

“It is extremely important that the students ... have a safe route to school,” wrote then-County Commissioner Anthony Berget in a letter of support. K. W. Maki, superintendent of schools at the time, wrote, “we support any effort to enhance the safety of the traveling public ... this Balsam sidewalk project is critical.”

The Planning Board had previously identified Balsam Street as an area of concern, and got the community onboard with a series of City Council meetings and a public hearing in August 2013. Smith said property owners were willing to grant easements and parents were excited.

The application was approved in the spring of 2014. After that, the “state really drug its feet” on implementing it, Smith said, because even though the grant program essentially wasn’t new it was being administered in a new way.

Smith said the Montana Department of Transportation also “started changing rules.” For example, she said that after the city paid for its own engineering study the state then said it would do its own and charge the city for it.

“Late in the project development, the city proposed to overlay the roadway, which would require a change in the design of the (project) plans to accommodate the change in the elevation of the roadway,” Dave Holien, an engineer with the Montana Department of Transportation, said via email. “The city was informed that there would be additional engineering work to accommodate the overlay, and they were also given some suggested options to reduce the amount of additional engineering required to accommodate the overlay. The city decided to move forward with the full depth overlay, which then required additional survey and engineering. Given the changes, there was some delay to the project delivery as well as increased engineering costs.”

“We forewarned them that we were going to pave that street,” said City Administrator Jim Hammons, adding that the city has “just a small window” of time every year to pave. “I talked to two or three different engineering firms that said all they (MDT) had to do is change the elevations to match what it was. I mean, they knew how thick we laid it, they just need to change all their points to that elevation.”

Holien also wrote that “given the limited match and the additional cost for engineering, the project had to be decreased from seven blocks to four blocks to fit within the city’s budget constraints. Furthermore, during the bid review process, because of the limited match amount, it was decided to only move forward with the two block base bid project.”

Holien suggested the city apply for funding in 2018 to continue the sidewalk for the remaining five blocks.

Smith said “we need to huddle” to discuss what if any options the city has for recourse. She said she briefly discussed the matter with Hammons, Mayor Brent Teske and Council Member Gary Beach, who chairs the lights, streets and sidewalks committee. They might write the state and the governor’s office. Smith said.

“It is frustrating because it was such an easy project and the fact they failed to make it happen ... is unconscionable,” she said. “The state really let this community down.”

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