New county trails come absent of maintenance funds

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Construction of the Missoula to Lolo Trail began last year and is slated for a July grand opening. (Photo courtesy of Missoula County)

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

A makeshift gravel parking lot off Highway 200 near Bonner will become the starting point for a new trail slated for summer construction, adding another key piece to Missoula County’s celebrated network of pathways.

While county commissioners pledged their commitment to maintain the trail “at their discretion” once it’s constructed, the funding to do so remains elusive. It’s something commissioners have placed on their agenda when it comes time to craft next year’s budget.

The Montana Department of Transportation approached the county earlier this week with a construction and maintenance contract. The state agency plans to realign Highway 200 near Bonner and tie it into a new signalized intersection near the Town Pump truck stop.

Shane Stack, the project engineer for MDT’s Missoula District, said a portion of the project includes roughly one-half mile of new trail. The pathway will tie into an existing trail crossing the Black Bridge into Bonner. Future connectors could extend the trail west toward Tamarack and possibly beyond to East Missoula.

“As part of the agreement, what we’d like to do is have some language in there for maintenance of the shared-use path,” Stack said. “Our expectation for this is that it’s up to the county. If you don’t want to plow it, you don’t have to plow it. That’s the language that would be in the agreement.”

The county currently claims roughly 45 miles of share-use trails. With the Missoula to Lolo Trail slated for a July opening and other projects planned throughout the Missoula Valley, the trail miles are certain to grow.

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A new pedestrian bridge over Reserve Street will connect the county’s new Missoula to Lolo Trail with the Bitterroot Branch Trail in the city. (Photo courtesy of HDR Engineering).

But Stack said MDT lacks the funding for winter trail maintenance. And while the county is interested in growing its trail network, it also lacks a maintenance plan and has not budgeted to cover future costs.

“Our team is looking at compiling some data and information looking at some baseline criteria to determine what it would cost for winter and summer maintenance,” said Lisa Moisey, the county’s parks and trails coordinator. “When we look at developing a level of service for maintenance, we’re looking at whether it’s on a bus route or a safe-school’s route, so we can bring forward a proposal that makes sense.”

Stack said studies have estimated statewide trail maintenance costs at roughly $600,000 a year. For local trails, annual costs can range from $400 to $4,000 a year for winter maintenance, and $200 a year for summer maintenance, much of it depending on the seasonal weather conditions.

As the budgeting process nears, commissioners intend to look for funding to cover maintenance costs, which they describe as reasonable.

“If we had a level of service that was $1,000 a mile – on the cheaper side – you’d be looking at roughly $50,000 to somehow include in a budget between parks and public works for potential maintenance,” said Commissioner Stacy Rye. “I have great interest in writing a letter to MDT for inclusion of this (trail) into the plan.”

MDT is looking at other trail projects in the greater Missoula area, including a project that would someday extend the Riverfront Trail system west of Russell Street out to Mullan Road. The agency is also looking at a shared-use path along Mullan Road, though Stack said that may also be contingent on the county’s interest in maintaining it.

Stack, along with other trail and tourism advocates, envisions a day where hikers, bikers and runners can travel from Bonner to Hamilton on non-motorized pathways. Other projects could extend the network further west toward Frenchtown and north to St. Ignatius, if not Polson.

“The (Confederated Salish and Kootenai) tribe is interested in a connection from the base of Post Creek Hill just south of St. Ignatius to the bottom of Evero Hill,” Stack said. “I see this stuff happening in the next five or ten years.”

Moisey said the proposals fit well with the county’s long-term trail plan.

“One of the goals in the 2012 Parks and Trails Plan was to look at ways to make connections between our communities,” said Moisey. “This helps us see where those gaps are so we can start looking critically at what it will take to fill them. It’s a helpful planning tool.”