Commissioners approved agreements to start River’s Edge Trail reroute near Broadwater Bay

RIver's Edge Trail reroute

Commissioners voted 3-0 during their Nov. 19 meeting to approve agreements with the Montana Department of Transportation and the River’s Edge Trail Foundation to initiate the project that will eliminate the “the circuitous route through the police station parking lot, a currently dangerous location due to the potential for conflicts between vehicles and bicyclists/pedestrians.”

It’s a step in rerouting the River’s Edge Trail along the Missouri River from Broadwater Bay to the 1st Avenue North Bridge area.

The River’s Edge Trail Foundation, City of Great Falls and other groups have struggled for nearly 30 years to find a way to reroute the convoluted jog the trail makes behind the police department, water park and crosses two active rail lines.

River’s Edge Trail reroute project on Nov. 19 commission agenda

Mayor Bob Kelly and Commissioner Tracy Houck were absent on Tuesday.

The project was presented to the commission in June 2016 and they directed staff to work with MDT and the foundation to design and fund the project.

The agreements approved Tuesday will formalize the project scope, maintenance responsibilities and financial contributions that will ultimately lead to construction of the project, according to the staff report.

Project to reroute River’s Edge Trail reaches fundraising milestone

During the Nov. 19 meeting, Bruce Pollington, RET Foundation president, said “this is a vital longstanding problem area on the trail.”

Pollington said the project would make this section the “showcase of the trail system.”

RET reroute

The proposed new route for the River’s Edge Trail on River Drive South. Courtesy River’s Edge Trail Foundation and LPW Architecture.

He said it would improve connectivity for visitors at hotels along the river and downtown to other amenities and would increase the potential for events to be hosted along the trail.

Pollington said the foundation was working on an agreement to provide additional funds should the project costs exceed current estimates.

The city Park and Recreation department committed $15,000 to the match with state funds and Pollington said that meant the city was getting a $2 million public improvement for a small fraction of the cost.

John Juras, a board member for Bike Walk Montana, said this project is an example of ‘closing the gap’ in trail systems across the state.

The organization is holding its state summit in Great Falls in April and said the event will include a session on ideas for closing those gaps.

The project will have challenges due to location, proximity to the river and railroad and complexity of the design, and staff guessed that it could take up to five years for completion.

Commissioner Bill Bronson said the project will take time but “if anyone thinks the River’s Edge Trail is not on a larger radar screen, you’d be surprised.”

Since that 2016 commission meeting, city staff has coordinated with the local Metropolitan Planning Organization and MDT to commit federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds to construct the project, with the required 13.42 percent match to be provided locally by the River’s Edge Trail Foundation.

Through the local transportation planning process, which includes the city, county and state, projects are identified for the use of various federal transportation funding sources, including Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds.

The Montana Department of Transportation’s Montana Air Congestion Initiative-Guaranteed Program sets aside some of those funds for eligible projects, which are bike and pedestrian projects, that are identified through the local transportation planning process, Andrew Finch, the city’s transportation planner, told The Electric this spring.

The trail rerouting project was included in the most recent Transportation Improvement Program document in 2018. It’s essentially a 5-year capital improvement plan for transportation projects in the Great Falls area, Finch said.

The project has been programmed with MDT and requires an agreement with the city in order to proceed. In order to commit the required matching funds, city staff has prepared an agreement with the River’s Edge Trail Foundation to formalize that commitment.

In March, the foundation and other community donors celebrating raising $250,000 toward the project. Those funds will be used toward matching the federal dollars.

Rerouting the trail will cost an estimated $1.976 million for all phases of development. That figure includes inflation and MDT’s indirect costs, according to city staff.

Of that cost, 86.58 percent, or $1.7 million will be provided by the Federal CMAQ program. The River’s Edge Trail Foundation has secured donations and financial commitments for the projected $266,000 in match.

Since actual project costs could fluctuate, city staff indicate there may be a need for the city to consider providing some of the matching funds but at this time, no city funding source has been identified.

The city’s Park and Recreation Department will be responsible for maintenance of the project upon completion when it becomes part of the River’s Edge Trail system. The department has the manpower and equipment to do so, according to the city.

The project will include about 2,200 feet of shared use trail on the west side of River Drive South adjacent to the Missouri River. Some portions of the trail will extend into the River and initial plans call for a river wall to be constructed, according to the city. Those portions make the project more complicated to design, fund and construct.

Since the state is funding the project, the state will also develop the project with input from the city. Potential concerns include regulatory review by environmental agencies due to the proximity to the river and railroad.