MDT recommends closing busy underpass


BOZEMAN, Mont. - The Montana Department of Transportation is recommending a northwest Bozeman underpass be shut down.

Between September 2005 and the end of last year, MDT reports 25 crashes at the Valley Center spur with 16 injuries and one death. Those figures don't include the crash that killed a woman at that intersection just last month.

And while they looked at placing traffic lights, they say it could create problems with cars backing up when trains pass.

MDT says closing the spur is the safest option.

MDT pre-construction engineer Dustin Rouse tells NBC Montana, "We would like to look at the closure of this underpass this fall when we anticipate we will have the East Belgrade Interchange in place, and that provides the traveling public with a separated crossing over the railroad, which is much safer than the at-grade crossing."

The East Valley Center spur is located about two miles west of the 19th Street-Interstate 90 interchange.

The spur connects East Valley Center Road on the south side of I-90 to the Frontage Road on the north side of the Interstate.

Many have called for safety improvements. A recent petition collected nearly 450 signatures of support, but some say closing the spur would cause problems.

Mike McGinley lives just yards from the East Belgrade Interchange. "I just hope they don't close it, that's my biggest thing," he said.

McGinley agrees MDT could make the intersection safer, but says closing it down isn't best option, "I really think they could put a light in and make it workable."

McGinley is a farmer and says he and others rely on the spur to move farm equipment from one side of Interstate 90 to the other. He says with out the overpass they would have to make trips across one of the busy overpasses in Bozeman or Belgrade with commuters behind them.

McGinley explained that commuters, "Get pretty uptight when they're following equipment that's moving slow, so it's a traffic hazard. There's no doubt about it."

But it's not just farmers who are worried. Central Valley Fire Chief Ron Lindroth tells us losing access to the underpass could increase emergency response time by 3 to 5 minutes.

Lindroth explained, "When you're not breathing or when you're having a heart attack or when your house is on fire, 3 to 5 minutes could seem like eternity."

Lindroth understands the safety concerns with the intersection. It's in his jurisdiction and it's often his crews responding to what he called, "Very bad wrecks with some poor outcomes. And we've also had several close calls where people had just gotten lucky."

While he doesn't want the spur to be closed, he tells us he recognizes the hard decisions MDT officials have in implementing necessary safety measures like a traffic light.

Next, the Montana Department of Transportation will meet with railroad officials find out how closing the spur might impact trains.

Then the proposal will be opened up for public comment. MDT hopes to have a decision on whether to close the spur by the time the new East Belgrade Interchange opens.