Residents given more time to weigh in on new rail crossing

Johnathan Hettinger -
Wednesday, August 22, 2018
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Enterprise photo by Nate Howard

Motorists wait for a train at the Fifth Street crossing Wednesday morning in Livingston.

The community will have more opportunities to weigh in on a proposed $17.5 million project that would include a railroad crossing west of town, the city commission decided Tuesday.

After an almost four-hour long meeting Tuesday, the commission voted 4-0 to hold public meetings and continue the discussion on the next steps in pursuing a railroad crossing at PFL Way, extending Front Street to the crossing and funding new infrastructure work for anticipated residential growth in that area.

There was very little discussion of the intricacies of implementing a new project – including how it would be funded – at Tuesday’s meeting. The next steps on the project were not discussed until after 9 p.m. – more than two and a half hours into the meeting.

Instead, the majority of the discussion focused on whether the Northside Transportation Plan, which was presented to the commission Tuesday, should be accepted as an official city document. The commission accepted the document – by a 4-0 vote – over the objection of the majority of the people who weighed in at the meeting.

Ultimately, two main themes emerged out of the meeting: something needs to be done to help with traffic trying to get to the north side of Livingston and the community needs more time to weigh in on a potential solution.

“I can’t imagine us not – at this time – moving forward with it,” said Chairwoman Dorel Hoglund. “When I ran for commission initially over five years ago, this was the issue I saw as almost more important than anything else. For me to see this to fruition would be amazing.”

Northside Transportation Plan

At the meeting, City Manager Mike Kardoes gave background on the project, including the history of the actions taken about the crossing and how the city spent $1.6 million on planning for a crossing at Star Road, which the plan found isn’t the best location for a crossing.

Then, engineers from Mason and Associates presented the Northside Transportation Plan – a widereaching new traffic plan for the northwest side of Livingston.

The traffic plan, commissioned in December and recently completed, includes a crossing of 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.

Originally, the plan called for an underpass at PFL Way, but the commission decided Tuesday to amend the study to just say a “separated grade crossing” and to discuss whether it would be an underpass or overpass at a later date.

The Northside Transportation Plan was used as background for a proposed $17.5 million project that would include construction of a new underpass and the extension of Front Street.

Acceptance of traffic plan

The key point raised in the discussion of the Northside Transportation Plan was whether the comgrow. The policy, created in 2004, was updated in 2017 with little public input, and the community has pushed for an updated policy.

But commissioners said they don’t view the Northside Transportation Plan as a binding document, but rather as information to help make an informed decision – including a potential update to the growth policy.

“This is a starting point,” said Commissioner Warren Mabie. “There’s assumptions being made that may or may not happen. But this is a paid-for document. It’s not written in stone.”

Hoglund said the city will use the document to inform its decisions, but that doesn’t mean it will be the only document used. mission approving the document was premature, considering the city does not have a growth plan.

The plan assumed full development of the north side of Livingston, projecting the construction of more than 2,000 new homes in the area north of the tracks.

Commissioner Sarah Sandberg, who called into the meeting and was not allowed to vote, said that the city needs a study about where it’s going to grow.

“What happens if we see growth to the north and east and south and east?” Sandberg said. “That goes back to my discussion on not having a comprehensive review or study.”

Sandberg said the lack of those other documents will make the plan the “default” planning document.

“To avoid that, we need to work on a comprehensive growth policy,” Sandberg said.

Other commissioners voiced support for updating the city’s growth policy – the document that guides the commission in deciding how and where the city will

Many citizens raised questions about how the city can know where to grow without a growth policy. Among those weighing in was Kellie Voyich, who owns property on Highway 10 that is currently in the county. Voyich said the plan is too overreaching without enough information. The plan recommends an extension of Geyser Street all the way through her land.

“I have an issue with you adopting the elements that aren’t backed up with something more substantial,” Voyich said. “It’s sort of putting the cart before the horse.”

Kardoes asked Voyich what would make her feel more comfortable.

“I don’t like that road crossing through our property,” Voyich said. “Nobody came to talk to us about this at all, which would’ve been nice.”

Kardoes said the road is just a line on the map at this point, showing that if the land is ever annexed into the city, it would be prudent for the city to ensure there is an arterial road in that area. Voyich said without engineering that backs up that the property would be suitable for a road, she objects to the road being included in an official city document. Voyich said the city needs a growth policy to decide if it even wants to grow that way. But Kardoes said any engineering work would be premature at this point. He also said this document doesn’t preclude a growth policy but just shows the way traffic will likely flow.

$17.5 million project

With the meeting running past 10 p.m., the commission provided little feedback on the $17.5 million project’s specifics but made it clear they want to move forward on the project.

The “conservative” cost estimates include: $6 million for a crossing, $5.4 million for an extension of Front Street, $1 million for sewer work and $1 million for water work.

The project would likely be paid for through a variety of funds: $2.5 million from Urban Route Funds from the Montana Department of Transportation, $2 million in utility costs from the water and sewer funds, $13 million would be from a combination of a city mill levy and a special improvement taxing district.

Under a presentation Kardoes gave the commission, 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 Commissioner Mel Friedman, a solution to deal with traffic at the Fifth Street crossing is the biggest priority for the city.

“It’s a real problem and we have to face it,” Friedman said.

Friedman said with the development happening on the north side, that should be the city’s priority, but the city needs input from its citizens.

“I think to satisfy everybody, we have to get everything else out and put it on the table,” Friedman said. “But there’s no question the problem exists right now and it can only get worse.”

Friedman said the transportation plan can help with the growth policy.

“We have to get everybody’s input and get a good growth policy for the city of Livingston and go forward,” Friedman said. “I don’t know where all that fits in.”

Sandberg said even though this plan could help with future growth on the north side, it still doesn’t address the issues at Fifth Street.

“This is as good as it’s going to get,” Sandberg said. “I know that doesn’t make our constituents on the north side very happy.”

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