Alternative transportation could help congestion

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Cars cross East Second Street on Baker Avenue Tuesday afternoon in downtown Whitefish. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

Transportation expert David Kack points out that many people have nicknames for their cars, and yet on average most only spend about one hour per day in their vehicle.

There’s a connection to a personal vehicle that means when looking to decrease congestion on the roadways and in parking, means educating those driving about alternative transportation whether that’s carpooling, riding the bus, walking or biking to destinations. The average cost to own and operate a vehicle is almost $9,000 per year, he notes.

“We have to provide options for mobility without spending money on a car,” he said.

Kack is the mobility and public transportation program manager for the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University. He says when folks talk about transportation they think first of automobiles.

“Mobility — the things we do to get where we want — is about public transportation, biking, walking or a combination of those things,” he said.

Kack says they key to getting folks using transportation other than automobiles is education about the services that are available and making sure that the services meet the needs of those looking to use them.

The Western Transportation Institute recently has been looking at transportation in Whitefish and surveyed downtown businesses and employees about their transportation habits and needs. It presented its findings so far recently during what is expected to be the first of several public meetings focused on downtown parking.

“Whitefish is facing issues that a lot of growing cities do,” Kack said. “Infrastructure lags behind growth.”

The work is one piece of the puzzle toward creating a new parking plan for the city of Whitefish.

City Long Range Planner Hilary Lindh said the city asked Western Transportation Institute to study transportation and transit in the city as it relates to parking.

“We plan to have more meetings focuses specifically on parking,” she said. “But first we wanted to look at transit as part of the solution for looking at ways to reduce congestion and parking issues, as well as green house emissions.”

Lindh said the intention in working with the transportation institute is that it could provide the city information to coordinate with transit providers, but also information about how people travel to Whitefish as it relates to traffic and parking.

“We wanted to look at how workers are getting to downtown and where they are coming from, and also how people are traveling locally to best determine how to expand services,” she said. “We wanted to figure out if we’re looking to create a pilot program where we would get the most bang for our buck.”

The Western Transportation Institute’s survey found that 95 percent of those working in Whitefish drove to their place of employment.

Laura Fay, research scientist with the institute, said of those driving they traveled distances of 1 mile to 20 miles, with the average being about 8 miles.

“We want to reduce the number of people driving one mile to work,” she said. “We want to see if we can help them travel in other ways like by biking.”

The survey also found that 4.5 percent of people are riding the bus and 4.5 percent are carpooling. Fay said those two types of transportation are being underutilized.

Eagle Transit provides services in Whitefish, along with Kalipsell and Columbia Falls and a commuter bus that travels between the two cities. It also provides a summer bus route to Glacier National Park.

The Big Mountain Commercial Association’s SNOW bus provides transportation from Whitefish to Whitefish Mountain Resort in both the winter and summer.

Updating the city’s parking plan for downtown was approved by City Council on its 2018 list of goals.

The city’s downtown master plan says that city should provide public parking that supports downtown retail and commercial business, along with providing an adequate number of parking spaces to meet future demands for employees and visitors. The city’s climate action plan also calls for creating a downtown multi-modal transportation hub likely at Depot Park.

Public Works Director Craig Workman said the study is part of retaining Whitefish’s character and a larger group of projects by the city.

“We’re also kicking off a downtown parking study to build on past parking studies,” he said. “Our intention is to hear from the public about what you think. We haven’t decided anything yet.”

Kack said Depot Park makes sense as a transportation hub because it’s a place where buses could sit so passengers can transfer, as well as its location for passengers coming off the railroad, and those biking or walking. He notes that it would make a good place to provide information about all the types of transportation in Whitefish and to surrounding towns. He recommends creating an access point near the Whitefish Community Library for buses to wait and creating a bus shelter.

In addition, Kack suggested looking closer for when and what types of services could ease congestion.

Kack said the feedback he’s heard is that traffic and parking congestion is an issue in the summer so one solution might be to provide a bus that runs around Whitefish to the key places people want to go such as City Beach or to trailheads.

“We want to implement solutions that solve problems,” Kack said.

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