(present-day Missoula) A transportation study on U.S. Highway 93 between Lolo and Florence is in its final phase and is expected to produce a number of recommendations to improve safety and reduce the number of wildlife collisions within the trail.
Sarah Nicolay, project engineer for Robert Becchia and Associates in Helena, said recommendations could include improving lighting, reducing speeds, improving intersections and potential wildlife crossings.
Ultimately, funding will determine what the Montana Department of Transportation chooses to address, and when.
“A lot of residents and commuters are looking for safety and operational improvements in this area,” said Nikolay. “Traffic volumes are definitely increasing in the Missoula and Pierrot areas.”
An environmental impact study was completed back in 1997 and new lanes were added to the highway as a result starting in 2001. Another study was conducted in 2008 looking at more local improvements and in 2020 MDT completed a targeted study looking at safety improvements on some sites.
Breakdowns remain a problem within the lane, according to a safety trend analysis. From 2016 to 2020, it has identified 198 accidents, including two deaths. Of the accidents, 55% were related to animals and 42% occurred at night.
“We know there are a lot of conflicts between wild animals and vehicles within the trail,” said Nikolai. “We realize these numbers are just incidents reported to law enforcement. There are other safety concerns that don’t necessarily show up in these numbers.”
The ongoing study also found that traffic has become more intense due to its proximity to Missoula, and some intersections make it difficult to enter or access the interstate. They found that the Bitterroot Trail also causes conflict with motorists.
At this point in the study, Nikolai said public feedback has called for additional traffic lights, lower speeds, more law enforcement presence, road lighting, a physical barrier between north and south lanes, and more accommodations for wildlife.
“Our study will document the known use and identify ways to reduce conflicts among corridor wildlife,” said Nikolai. “Our task now is to investigate these potential corridor solutions in more detail.”
The highway can be difficult for animals to navigate, Nikolai said, and several locations have been searched for potential improvements. Parts of the Lolo Creek Bridge are passable for large mammals, but the rip walls at its base aren’t ideal.
Two grizzly bears crossing the highway this past August were also tracked and did so via a stocked lane below the road, suggesting another possible solution. McClain Creek was also identified in a previous study as a wildlife link between the Bitterroot and Sapphire Ranges.
However, the sinkhole of McClain Creek is too small for large mammals to use.
The study will continue this year with results expected in the fall. But Bob Vossen, MDT’s Missoula Region Director, said construction will depend on financing.
“The challenge is all funding is tied,” he said. “The hard part is we don’t know yet what the potential solutions are. We’ll try to see if there’s any additional fruit hanging around, something easy and inexpensive.”
Vossen said the region’s funding is committed for the next five years and that moving one project up could set another back. However, he said safety is king and a variety of funding sources may be available for some projects.
One source of funding aimed at addressing wildlife crossings may be available in a new federal discretionary grant.
“We’ll look into that,” Vossen said. “There is also a group in the state that is interested in PPPs, and we are trying to work with them to identify some start-up projects just to get the (wildlife crossing) operation in place. With discretionary grants, we’re excited to see what those look like as well.”