Lower Speed Limit Approved for Seeley Lake
SEELEY LAKE - A two-year saga came to a successful conclusion when the Montana Transportation Commission granted virtually all of the requested speed limit reductions that the Seeley Lake Community Council had petitioned for. The Commission’s order Sept. 22 closed the final chapter on a lengthy story that began with a constituent’s question at a council meeting in 2014 about what might be done to slow traffic in Seeley Lake.
The council’s Traffic Project was launched with an appeal to the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) for lower speed limits in Seeley and more and better-marked pedestrian crossings. MDT’s response was deemed disappointing and the council embarked on a major survey during the summer of 2015 to determine the community’s sentiments.
With a dozen volunteers staffing tables around town, 330 community members signed petitions; 90 percent of those supported changes in speed limits and more crosswalks and 90 percent of those were in favor of speed limit reductions beyond town.
MDT responded positively with respect to the crosswalks and working with the council’s Traffic Committee established two new temporary crossings in the spring of 2016 at Riverview Drive and Boy Scout Road. In regard to lower speed limits, MDT stuck to its initial position of only very moderate reductions.
The council decided to appeal to the Montana Transportation Commission in Helena, the final arbitrator of traffic issues. Working with the support of the County Commissioners, State Senator Sue Malek and especially County Director of Public Works Greg Robertson, a delegation from the council appeared before the commission in May of this year to plead its case for lower speed limits.
MDT continued to strongly oppose the council’s request at the commission. Most of the commissioners seemed to side with MDT; particularly the proposed extension of speed limits beyond town appeared unpalatable to some of the commissioners.
It looked like Seeley Lake’s hopes for lower speed limits were about to be trounced when fate intervened. Moments before the commission was to vote on what looked like it would be a rejection, a bad phone connection saved the day. Commissioner Daniel Belcourt, whose district includes Seeley Lake and who had dialed into the commission meeting, was not audible. One of the commissioners then moved that a decision be postponed until Belcourt could fully participate. The council’s delegation heaved a sigh of relief, realizing that they had just been handed a second chance.
From then on things began to brighten. Belcourt visited Seeley for a personal survey and agreed that the council’s request made sense. In a strategy session which included Commissioner Belcourt, Senator Malek, Missoula County Commissioner Stacy Rye and Public Works Director Robertson an alternative approach was hammered out.
Duane “Cecil” Schlabach, Chair of the Traffic Project, proposed a new submission that would maintain the speed limit reductions in town but not extend as far beyond it as in the original proposal. The full council endorsed that alternative plan. On Sept. 22 the council’s delegation headed to Helena again.
The Seeley Lake troupe consisted of County Commissioner Rye, Community Council members Schlabach, former council chair and elementary school superintendent Chris Stout, von Stutterheim and three community members Carol White, Rick Bartels and Dan Smrdel. Additional reinforcement was provided by Missoula County Sheriff’s Sergeant Bob Parcell, whose department had also signed onto the project. Missing from the group was Senator Malek who had to cancel last minute because of an eye injury.
To everyone’s surprise, this time MDT’s objections were not vehement at all. Their engineer allowed that while the department continued to stand by its earlier recommendations they felt that the revised Seeley Lake plan was not that far apart from their own recommendations, except for the southern stretch where MDT wanted higher speed limits and no extensions of speed limits beyond what currently existed.
After the conclusion of testimony, Belcourt advocated strongly for the Seeley Lake version. Following a brief discussion, the Commission voted unanimously to side with Seeley Lake, even reducing the speed limit on the southern end to 40 miles per hour (mph), below the 45 mph that the council had asked for. The only other change to the Seeley plan was to start the lower speed just south of Cory’s Market rather than at Wagonwheel Drive.
Two years of hard and sometimes frustrating work that at various points had appeared fruitless suddenly ended in a major triumph for the community.
“We are overjoyed with the outcome. It proves that persistent, painstaking work in representing community wishes can find a responsive ear from government. The trick is not to give up,” said Traffic Chair Schlabach. “We are very grateful to all who helped bring about this outcome: the community members who signed our petition, the volunteers who collected the signatures, the County Commissioners, Public Works Director Robertson, Senator Malek, Sgt. Parcell and the sheriff’s department and Commissioner Belcourt. We also appreciate the work of the Department of Transportation. While we did not always share their viewpoints, we are grateful for their efforts and their repeated willingness to engage in constructive dialogue. Finally, we would like to thank the Transportation Commission for twice entertaining our submissions and for their role in bringing our efforts to a successful conclusion.”
Von Stutterheim added, “As we dole out praise, high honors go to Cecil [Schlabach] who conceived the process, crystallized the proposals for the survey, organized the volunteers, tabulated the results, fashioned our alternative submission when the first one de facto failed and skillfully walked the Commission through the rationale of our ultimately successful submission.
“We also had a vital ally: Transportation Commissioner Dan Belcourt whose strong support of the community’s voice proved invaluable. Dan’s help, advice and advocacy for our position were a critical part of carrying us across the finish line. We are very grateful for his engagement.”
These are the new speed limits:
• South of Cory’s Market to Riverview Drive, 40 mph
• Riverview Drive to the Quilt Store, 35 mph
• Quilt Store to Motor Lodge Inn, 25 mph
• Motor Lodge Inn to the Community Hall, 35 mph
• Community Hall to Hemlock Drive, 45 mph