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If the city of Bozeman has its way, an ambitious, $6.7 million “mega-build” road project will transform a swath of west Bozeman’s patchwork street grid this summer — extending Ferguson Avenue, widening Oak Street, building out Flanders Mill Road and upgrading intersections.

It’s an overdue effort, city officials say, pointing to headaches caused by partially complete roads like Oak and in-progress development like the Flanders Mill subdivision, Bozeman Sports Park and the planned second high school.

The catch, though: Gallatin County owns the county regional park bordering Oak and Ferguson and doesn’t want to pay what the city considers its fair share of the bill.

The argument about who should pay could end up in court.

“We have a transportation system that’s straining under the growth of this community, and in no place is this strain more apparent than the west side of town,” Public Works Director Craig Woolard said as he formally presented the project to city commissioners this week.

The city, the Bozeman School District and the private developer building the Flanders Mill subdivision have all agreed to fund portions of the project, he said, with work planned under a negotiated contract with Sime Construction.

Using a single contractor to do a swath of work instead of bidding out the work piecemeal makes the project more efficient, Woolard said, and gives the city a way to make substantial progress on its infrastructure woes in one fell swoop.

But collaboration, and the project’s scale, also means the effort has more moving parts, something that may well prove its Achilles’ heel as cost-conscious county commissioners argue the city is sticking them and their taxpayers with too much of the bill.

The city’s math puts the county on the hook for $1.1 million, slightly more than a third of the $3 million price tag for building out stretches of Ferguson and Oak adjacent to the regional park.

Extending Ferguson north from Oak to Baxter Lane, along the west edge of the regional park, will cost about $1.1 million, according to city documents. The city wants to see that cost split roughly three ways, between it, the county and Flanders Mill LLC, the developer planning a subdivision across the road from the park.

The city also wants to go halfsies with the county on the $1.4 million cost of expanding Oak to four lanes. It expects to spend another $2.5 million out of its impact fee and arterial street assessment coffers alone to upgrade Oak’s intersections with Ferguson and Davis Lane.

As a third component of the project, the city, developer and school district plan to divide the $1.7 million cost of expanding Flanders Mill Road to include sidewalks, curbs and bike lanes.

“It’s a fairly complicated deal, if you will,” Woolard said Monday.

Who should pay?

The city’s grand designs aside, county commissioners, who represent both city and rural residents, aren’t chomping at the bit to pay the $1.1 million for infrastructure around open space that’s been encircled by the growing city.

“The question is: What is our fair share?” Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner said Thursday. “We don’t think that paying a third of those roads is our fair share.”

“We feel we probably don’t owe anything,” he said.

The county is a governmental entity, not a developer, Skinner said, adding he doesn’t think the park will generate as much traffic as something like a subdivision.

As a counteroffer, he said, the county had agreed to give the city $450,000 for the project, in addition to donating right of way fronting the regional park along Oak Street valued at $160,000.

But that’s not enough for city officials, including Mayor Carson Taylor, who say it’s Bozeman’s longstanding policy to hold property owners responsible for a “local share” of road upgrades adjacent to their land.

For instance, $513,000 for the Flanders Mill build-out is coming from the Trails, Open Space and Parks bond funds allocated for the city sports park planned to its west — a cost the city considers part and parcel of creating a public facility.

The local share policy does have its detractors, though. In 2015, the Gallatin Valley YMCA abandoned plans to build adjacent to the regional park after the city pushed the group to spend $865,000 on a stretch of Vaquero Parkway. Instead, the nonprofit is now building outside city limits on land owned by Journey Church at the corner of Baxter and Love Lane.

That location is currently served by two-lane county roads and a four-way stop, though there’s been talk of replacing the intersection with a roundabout on the Montana Department of Transportation’s dime.

“It has to be paid for by someone,” Taylor said.

“We’re challenging the way they do business,” said Skinner.

Off to the courts?

It’s entirely possible, Skinner and Taylor both said, that the city and county will end up in court over the cost split for the Oak and Ferguson upgrades, debating whether the city can force the county to pay.

Additionally, if the two governments can’t come to a quick agreement on a small-but-vital detail — the regional park easement, necessary to build the Oak Street part of the project as the city currently has it designed — that portion of the mega-build could end up delayed.

A deadlock over the easement would force the city to put the Oak upgrades out for a separate bid, potentially making the work more expensive. It would also probably delay the Oak expansion until next summer, Woolard said, subjecting the area’s residents to two seasons of construction gridlock instead of one.

At issue more broadly is whether the city has the power to force the county to pay for the roads by placing a special improvement district, or SID, on the regional park property.

City attorney Greg Sullivan said this week land records for the regional park property include a waiver that precludes the county’s right to protest an SID creation.

But Skinner says things aren’t that clear, arguing that the waiver had been signed by a developer before the county acquired the regional park. The county’s contract with the developer said he would pay for the roads, Skinner said, but the developer ended up bankrupt.

Taylor said his fear is that the county will insist on using the easement issue as leverage in the SID debate, forcing the city to delay the Oak Street work as the rest of the effort moves forward.

“I think this is a great example of how the city and county have to learn to cooperate with each other,” he said.

“I think possibly we might find a way to sell the easement to them,” Skinner said.

If the county doesn’t give in and wins in court, Bozeman’s residents — themselves 40 percent of the county’s tax base — will end up paying the county share of the project too, Taylor said.

“Do the math on people who will come from the county, along Oak,” Taylor said. “It’s not like nobody in the county uses it.”

“We’ve got a lot of legal arguments if it should go to court,” Skinner said, adding that he doubts the county would have bought the regional park property if it had known it would have to fund the adjacent streets.

“We never planned on paying the costs of those roads,” he said.

Bozeman's westside street 'mega-project'

A major $6.7 million roads project could expand a swath of west Bozeman this summer. The catch: Bozeman officials want to see costs split per the city's policy of having adjacent development pay for a "local share" of streets, but regional park owner Gallatin County is balking at their price tag.

VAQUERO

BAXTER LN

DAVIS LN

D

B

Future

Bozeman

Sports Park

YMCA Property

Flanders Mill

Subdivision

Gallatin County

Regional Park

A

OAK ST

C

Future

Second

High School

FLANDERS MILL RD

COTTONWOOD RD

NEW HOLLAND DR

FERGUSON AVE

A. Upgrading Oak Street

Expanding Oak to four lanes with a median between Ferguson and New Holland Drive, plus adding a signal at Oak and Ferguson for $531,000 and a roundabout at Oak and Davis for $1.9 million.

  • City of Bozeman: $705,000 for the road and $2.5 million for the intersections
  • Gallatin County: $705,000 (disputed)

Total cost: $3.9 million. This section, however, is contingent on the county agreeing to grant the city an easement where Oak borders the regional park.

B. Extending Ferguson

Paving roadway north from Oak Street to Baxter, along the west edge of the county regional park.

  • City of Bozeman: $357,000
  • Gallatin County: $357,000 (disputed)
  • Flanders Mill, LLC: $401,000

Total cost: $1.1 million

C. Expanding Flanders Mill from Sunstone to Oak

Expanding Flanders Mill Road to the city's "local street standard," including bike lanes, curbs and sidewalks between the Flanders Mill Subdivisiion and Bozeman's future second high school.

  • Bozeman School District: $305,000
  • Flanders Mill, LLC: $305,000

Total cost: $610,000

D. Expanding Flanders Mill from Oak to Baxter

Expanding Flanders Mill to the city local street standard between the Bozeman Sports Park and Flanders Mill Subdivision.

  • City of Bozeman: $513,000 (from TOP bond funding for sports park)
  • Flanders Mill, LLC: $559,000

Total Cost: $1.1 million

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Eric Dietrich can be reached at 406-582-2628 or edietrich@dailychronicle.com. He is on Twitter at @eidietrich.

Eric Dietrich covers city government and health for the Chronicle.

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