GREAT FALLS – Not only did Monday morning bring sunshine and slush to the Electric City, but it also offered glimpses of a long-overdue sight: the third lane of 10th Avenue South.
Great Falls’ busiest through street had been reduced to two lanes for nearly 20 days.
The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) dispatched several snow plows Monday to clear off mounds of snow and ice from the avenue. Following a February among the top five snowiest and coldest in the history of the city, severe winter weather condensed 10th to two lanes in mid-February, as MDT was forced to utilize 10th’s third lane for snow storage.
Monday afternoon marked the first day that 10th’s third lane had been drivable since at least Feb. 21, and the added traffic delay led to some frustration from community members regarding plowing efforts. In an interview with MTN on Monday, Great Falls MDT District Administrator Doug Wilmot assured that his plowers “made pretty good progress up there [on Monday].”
“A lot of it will be done by [Monday] night,” Wilmot added, “But we currently have traffic driving on most of [10th] as it is. Our maintenance crews were out this weekend, working to move snow at the storm drain drop inlet locations to open up the drains.”
Wilmot noted that continued progress “will be very dependent on temperatures, as well as any additional snow or blowing and drifting. If we do get blowing, drifting, or new snow, our priority will be keeping all of the roads passable.”
He added, “If the predicted weather holds out, we should be able get the third lane […] fully opened up by the end of the week.”
According to Wilmot, this February’s treacherous weather presented numerous challenges in terms of plowing and clearing roads, which is what resulted in a relatively tough traffic situation.
“It’s definitely been a snowy, cold February and beginning of March so far. One of the things that’s somewhat unique for the Great Falls area is we’ve really had to warm up to get rid of the existing snow. The problems have just been snow piling up and dealing with that, and we’ve got a whole lot of blowing and drifting right now,” Wilmot said.
In the 1980s, the Montana Department of Transportation decided to expand 10th Avenue South into three lanes. And for the past 30 years, that has been the norm for Great Falls residents. But the added transportation delays have caused frustration for those with busy schedules — like retired lunch lady and cashier Kim Smith and her husband, Ken.
“Ken has had to leave 15 or 20 minutes early for work every day, due to the increased traffic load on 10th with only two lanes open,” Smith told MTN Monday afternoon. “That has been a real headache for him. A couple days [ago] he even took 9th instead!”
“I just drove up 10th this afternoon,” Smith said. “It’s quite slushy, but I’m looking forward to all three lanes being open and clear soon.”
In a Facebook post on February 27, Kim summed up her situation: “I know those of you who live in ‘real’ cities are laughing at our ‘heavy traffic,’ but when you’re not used to it, it puts a spin on your day.”
Montana State University student and Great Falls native McKenna Brown reiterated that sentiment to MTN on Monday.
“I was home over this past weekend visiting from college, and after driving on the streets of 10th, I seriously have never missed Bozeman more,” Brown said. But while the inconvenience has left many exasperated, a sense of gratitude for those working to keep Great Falls operating smoothly remains.
Great Falls High School senior Bailey Oster told MTN, “I’m thankful that our community has someone that is willing to wake up before the sun and go out on the dangerous roads so everyone else is safe!”