With new plan, city to discuss underpass, street extensions
Friday, August 17, 2018

Enterprise photo by Nate Howard

A FedEx driver stops at the intersection of PFL Way and Highway 10 Friday morning as a train passes in the distance where a rail crossing is proposed to accommodate future growth.

Graphic courtesy city of Livingston

The Northside Transportation Plan proposes the construction of an underpass at PFL Way, extending Front Street, connecting Geyser Street with Elkhorn Lane and the construction of more roads on the north side of Livingston to improve traffic flow.

On Tuesday, the Livingston City Commission will hear a traffic plan that would change the way the city looks for the next 50 years.

The plan includes a crossing under the railroad tracks at Printing For Less Way, the creation of three arterial through streets by extending Front and Geyser all the way through to Printing For Less, and significantly more roads to help traffic better navigate the north side of Livingston.

Also Tuesday, the commission will have a discussion on whether to move forward with a $17.5 million project that would include a railroad crossing at Printing For Less by taking steps to raise money for the project via a mill levy increase — which would be voted on — a special taxing district and the use of state and federal funds.

The proposed actions are highlighted in the Northside Transportation Plan, which was made available Thursday in the commission’s agenda packet. The plan also abandons the idea of a rail crossing at Star Road, a decadelong boondoggle that the city spent $1.6 million studying.

At the meeting, City Manager Mike Kardoes will give a presentation on the history of the actions taken by the underpass, engineers who created the traffic plan will explain its intricacies, and then the commission will discuss and potentially make a decision on how it wants to move forward on the underpass situation.

Kardoes said the Northside Transportation Plan is accommodating growth on the north side, and the plan uses the city estimate that Livingston could add as many as 2,240 homes north of the tracks.

“We want to improve a plan or system that works with future growth,” Kardoes said. “We’re not focusing on five years, 10 years or even 20 years into the future — we’re planning 50 years in the future.”

When asked whether the city will consider other documents beyond the traffic study — especially amid a citizen push for an updated growth policy — Kardoes said he thinks the Northside Transportation Plan answers many of the questions the community is asking.

“I don’t know what we could get out of a growth policy that we didn’t get out of this transportation study,” Kardoes said.


Underpass, Front Street extension priorities

Right now, the city’s priorities are a railroad crossing, the extension of Front Street, and much-needed water and sewer work that would go along with that project, Kardoes said.

The commission will discuss and potentially decide Tuesday on whether to move forward with a $17.5 million project that would include these upgrades.

Kardoes said the cost estimates are conservative but broke them down as including $6 million for a crossing, $5.4 million for an extension of Front Street, $1 million for sewer work, $1 million for water work.

In a proposal prepared for the commission, Kardoes laid out a number of methods that could help pay for the project. Urban Route Funds from the Montana Department of Transportation would provide $2.5 million, while utility costs from the water and sewer funds could raise another $2 million. The remaining $13 million would be from a combination of a city mill levy and a special improvement taxing district.

Under Kardoes’ proposal, a city mill levy would raise $6 million to $9 million of the $13 million, while the special improvement district would cover between $3.6 million and $6.6 million.

A special improvement district would tax people benefitting from the project at a higher rate than those homes that don’t benefit as much from the project. The district would likely include houses on the north side of the tracks, though it’s not clear how far that district would go.

For all Livingston homes, the increase for a $6 million levy would cost $110/year for the median household. For a $9 million levy, the median household would cost $165/year. Those costs would sunset after 20 years.

The city estimates that there would be between 1,000 and 1,500 homes in the special improvement taxing district.

To raise $3.6 million with a special improvement taxing district, homes in the district would see an increased cost of between $176/ year and $265/year, depending on how many homes are in the district. To raise $6.6 million, homes in the district would see increased costs of between $325/year and $485/year.

One benefit of a special improvement district is that as new homes are built, they will likely reduce the tax burden in that area.

Kardoes estimated that the combined mill levy and special improvement district would increase a mortgage by $14/month for an average home outside of the district or about $30/month for homes inside the district.

Additionally, the city would apply for grants to help offset the cost.


$1.6 million boondoggle

In April 2008, voters approved a mill levy hike to pay for planning documents on a potential crossing at Star Road and Front Street.

Looking back, Kardoes said he isn’t sure that the mill levy — which was for planning documents, not a crossing — was properly marketed to citizens.

Over the past decade, the city has spent more than $1.6 million on a potential crossing at Star Road.

The costs ranged from $169.80 on legal advertisements to $35,862 on a study about an overpass versus an underpass to $38,769.75 on failed applications for TIGER grants to $249,772.42 on right of way purchases to $729,970.14 on design work.

Now, with the crossing potentially moving 1.2 miles farther west down the road, almost all of those documents have no value, though it’s possible some of the studies could be used on the extension of Front Street or changing Sunrise Drive to accommodate new roads.

“It’s obviously not flattering,” Kardoes said. “But we want people to know exactly what the money was spent on.”

“We won’t know until we give the documents to the engineers, but probably not a lot (is reusable),” Kardoes said.

Even though the city would have to cut its losses on the $1.6 million it spent on the Star Road underpass, Kardoes said it needs to make the best decision for the future.

This time around, Kardoes said the city will wait until all of its funding is secure before moving the project.


Work would offset Infrastructure needs

One benefit of the $17.5 million project is that it would likely offset a number of future infrastructure costs the city would otherwise incur.

These savings would likely be enough to pay off the $1.6 million spent on the Star Road crossing, Kardoes said.

Right now, the city’s water and sewer on the north side are near capacity, and the city would likely have to expand the sewer lines from 8 inches to 10 inches if nothing is done.

But with a crossing at PFL Way, any new growth would be able to be tied in to the sewer and water system that currently serves Printing For Less, meaning the city would not have to replace any existing pipes for the growth. That also is one benefit of an underpass because in order to tie in the new systems to the Printing For Less system, the city will already have to dig under the railroad tracks, Kardoes said.

“I’m confident that we will save more than $1.6 million,” Kardoes said.

He said the plan kills two birds with one stone.

“We’ll be able to use the crossing to help solve these other problems,” he said.


Beyond the underpass

While the Northside Transportation Plan recommends an underpass, Kardoes said the city isn’t committed to an underpass.

“This is the first professional to look at it, and that’s what they think would work best traffic-wise,” Kardoes said.

Many of the other proposed changes, including the extension of Geyser through what is now county property and the construction of more streets on the north side, wouldn’t come until later, if at all.

For example, Elkhorn Lane, which would likely be the extension of Geyser all the way through to PFL Way, would need to trade a crossing that is currently at Mt. Baldy Drive, and the city would have to annex those county properties.

“It’s a great idea, but it’s not the city,” Kardoes said. “But if we annex it, we know to get the easements.”

Kardoes said growth is going to happen on the north side of the tracks as well as between Highway 10 and Interstate 90.

“The city is going to grow whether we put this in or not,” Kardoes said. “We need to adjust to that growth and have a plan for it.”


Rail crossing discussion has been going on for decades

An additional crossing over the railroad tracks has been discussed for at least 41 years, according to City Manager Mike Kardoes, who will present the history to the commission on Tuesday.

In March 1977, 641 residents sent a letter to BNSF Railway asking them to build a new crossing. The railroad declined. Both in 1995 and 2004, the city’s master plan said the city needs an additional crossing, but no action was taken.

Action was finally taken in April 2008, when the city approved a mill levy to pay for planning documents for a potential crossing at Front Street and Star Road.

Between 2010 and 2015, the city took a number of actions, commissioning environmental and traffic studies, applying for grants and funding, forming agreements with the Montana Department of Transportation and Montana Rail Link, and purchasing a building in the Star Road right of way.

Finally, in December 2017, the city commissioned the Northside Transportation Plan, which was finalized this week.

The city has until September 2021 to start work on an underpass project or else pay back $916,800 of a federal grant that the city has already spent for planning documents on an underpass at Star Road.