Roundabout at Clearwater Junction tops discussion

Greenough-Potomac Fire Board

POTOMAC – Members of the Montana Department of Transportation Project Team (Team) for the Clearwater Junction Intersection Project met with the Greenough-Potomac Fire District Board to provide information and answer questions regarding the proposed roundabout. In mid-November 2021, MDT announced a high-speed roundabout, a roundabout on a high-speed roadway, was the preferred alternative of the six alternatives evaluated. The team has now entered the design phase and continues to encourage public input as they work to address safety, operations and community concerns.

“We have just identified the solution,” said Jacquelyn Smith, preconstruction engineer for MDT. “We have not done any of the design. We just have the concept.”

MDT has been evaluating the intersection of Highway 200 and Highway 83, commonly known as Clearwater Junction, for several years. Clearwater Junction is a major connection point for Helena, Missoula, Kalispell and the small towns in between.

Following a fatality, the Highway Safety Improvement Program identified the busy intersection as needing improvements to alleviate traffic and safety concerns.

Robert Peccia & Association Engineering Firm Project Manager April Gerth said the majority of the crashes, and the most severe crashes at the Clearwater Junction intersection, were from left hand turns resulting in a t-bone. The roundabout was the only alternative that provided the safety improvement that eliminated the left-hand turn therefore mitigating the crash cluster. The roundabout also addresses the congestion issue.

Gerth explained they would install a high-speed roundabout, something that is fairly common for dealing with a crash trend in a rural area. At the Junction, it would be designed for three approaches with curves, curb and gutter and raised median that start 800 - 1,000 feet from the center of the roundabout. Reduced speed signs would also be installed until the vehicle is traveling 25 miles per hour while in the roundabout.

Upon existing, the vehicle can immediately begin accelerating. Gerth estimates it would take 10-30 seconds to travel through the roundabout.

“There is no shock to this,” Gerth said. “You are getting those triggers to slow down as you are coming through. And you really can’t go a lot faster than the geometrics are making you slow down.”

During the design, they will also address the approaches to the gas station, weigh station, rest area and boat check station.

In response to the suggestion simply reduce the speed limit, Gerth said, “What we have found is they just simply don’t work.”

She explained that, because there is no physical reason for drivers to slow down, people will take more risks and pull out too close to oncoming traffic that may or may not be traveling at the reduced speed.

The roundabout will also improve the ability and safety for pedestrians to cross, a criteria brought up by the public as a point of concern. Instead of crossing the exposed highway, a pedestrian can cross one lane in the roundabout, wait on the raised median and then cross another lane.

Gerth said they have not yet determined the location of the roundabout at the intersection.

“We need to do a lot more evaluation and look at a lot of different alternatives that we can do with that roundabout now that we are in the design phase,” Gerth said.

She estimating it would take them up to six months to determine the location. Then it will be several more years before they begin construction. The schedule has not yet been released for the project.

“This is safety driven so we want to get it done but it does take several years to develop projects and get them permitted,” Smith said. “Any right-of-way that we do, we will have to get that acquired before.”

Gerth said the project is designed for a 20-year life. The projected traffic volume is 12,000 vehicles per day.

The board raised concerns they felt should be considered with the design including usefulness as an Emergency Medical Service rendezvous point and location to land a helicopter. They also said good communication throughout the construction is essential for them to operate effectively. They also recommended reaching out to surrounding EMS services to ensure they were informed.

“We know construction is going to be disruptive,” Gerth said. “With EMS, we want to make sure we can get someone through there at any time during construction.”

Fire Chief Ryan Hall asked why MDT is focusing on Clearwater Junction and not other locations like Ninemile Prairie. Members of the board agreed with him that the Junction is not where they are responding to the most accidents.

“It is a very complicated answer,” Gerth said briefly explaining all the variables they looked at and studies they have done. “It is a very limited pot of money. [MDT] spends an inordinate amount of time [studying roadways with a high severity rate] and they also have an incident control system that helps us interpret data and where the money should be spent. They do not spend money lightly.”

Smith said a fatality is what triggered MDT to further study the area. After looking at the junction they identified a crash cluster. They used the data from the crashes to determine if they were intersection related since there are a lot of approaches and a lot of movement at the junction.

“There is something that is causing multiple crashes in this location therefore our money is well spent where we can have a significant impact,” Gerth said. “That is why roundabouts are so effective, they are not passive. They actually force someone to obey our rules.”

Chair Scott Gordon said he is still concerned about the potential increase in the number of crashes taxing the volunteers. Even though the roundabout my decrease the severity of cases, volunteers still need to respond and it takes responders out of their community.

Gerth said nationally roundabouts reduce fatalities by 75-80% and all crashes are reduced 70%. She said she was astounded at the reduction in the number of crashes on Canyon Ferry Road where they installed the roundabout.

“It was amazing how well [the roundabout] works,” Gerth said. “There has not been a serious crash since it has been put in. It changed my mind 100%.”

Several members of the public asked where they can find other examples of roundabouts in Montana that are similar to what would be installed at Clearwater Junction. In addition to the one at Canyon Ferry, the Team highlighted one outside Helena, near Popular, in the Bitterroot and one that was just installed on US Highway 2 outside of Kalispell. They referred the group to visit MDT’s website and view their interactive maps for more

Finally the board raised the questions about megaloads and other truck traffic being able to navigate the roundabout.

Gerth said the roundabout is designed for a highway semi. Then they add flatter, roll curbs and extra over-tracking areas for lowboys and extra wide loads. They have had rotor blades for the windmills and houses go through the roundabout in Popular, Montana.

“We can not restrict someone from using an MDT road, so we need to make sure that anything that could go through there before, can go through there now,” Gerth said.

Smith said they have had good engagement with the public. MDT will continue to communicate, sharing details as they become available and seeking community feedback. She encouraged the fire department to reach out as well.

For more information visit the project website,, email Communications Manager Kristine Fife at or call the project hotline, 406-207-4484.

Training Policy update

In other business, the board discussed their policy for required trainings for volunteers. Active members on QRU and Fire Department are required to be current and proficient in CPR, Stop the Bleed, pump and vehicle operations and driving. Firefighters are required to be current and proficient in basic wildland and Firefighter 1.

Since Firefighter 1 one is a federally recognized course, Fire Chief Ryan Hall requested the required training for structure firefighters be changed to offensive interior attack. This allows the department to offer a modified Firefighter 1 training that is still recognized by the Fire Services Training School.

Hall also requested the Board add a two-year timeline to get the initial training. He felt this provides accountability while still allowing flexibility to responders.

The policy will be read again at their March meeting, March 1 at 6:30 p.m. at the Potomac Fire Hall, Potomac Road.

* Editor's Note: This article was updated Feb. 11 to clarify the term "high-speed roundabout" means a roundabout on a high-speed roadway.


Reader Comments(1)

ScottRAB writes:

High speed and roundabout do not go together. One of the reasons roundabouts are so much safer is the slowing of traffic into the range of 20 mph. Large rotaries on the east coast failed because of the high speeds they permitted.