Missoula County to host virtual summit on restoring passenger rail to southern Montana

Missoula County will host a virtual Montana Passenger Rail Summit on Thursday, Sept. 17, to educate and advocate for the restoration of passenger rail service to southern Montana.

The summit is open to elected officials, government staff, business and tourism professionals, and anyone interested in restoring passenger rail service to southern Montana and increasing rail connectivity across the region.

Organizers are still finalizing the agenda, but confirmed speakers include:

  • Elaine Clegg, city council president, Boise, Idaho
  • Robert Eaton, director, State Supported Service and Government Affairs, Amtrak
  • Jordan Hess, councilman, City of Missoula
  • Jim Mathews, president and CEO, Rail Passengers Association
  • Roger Millar, secretary of transportation, Washington State Department of Transportation
  • Andrea Olsen, representative, Montana House
  • Beth Osborne, director, Transportation for America
  • John-Robert Smith, chairman, Transportation for America
  • John Spain, vice chairman, Southern Rail Commission
  • Dave Strohmaier, commissioner, Missoula County

“Restoring passenger rail service to southern Montana would be transformative for the state — economically, socially and environmentally,” Strohmaier said. “As we recover from the effects of COVID-19, it’s more critical than ever to make smart transportation investments that further community resiliency. Passenger rail is key to realizing that vision, and there is no reason why Montana shouldn’t be a leader in making this a reality.”

Strohmaier, with the support of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners and others, has spearheaded the current renewed effort to restore passenger rail service to the southern part of the state, similar to the North Coast Hiawatha Amtrak route that served Montana until 1979. In addition to providing long-distance transportation within the state, passenger rail restoration would provide for greater connectivity regionally, with possible connections to Seattle, Chicago, Denver and Salt Lake City.

State statute allows for counties to create a regional rail authority as a framework for administering and funding passenger rail service. Earlier this month, Missoula County commissioners finalized a resolution to create the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, and commissioners from Dawson, Park and Sanders counties have expressed their intent to join.

“Bringing passenger rail back to southern Montana would be a game changer for our state, but it is no small task,” Hess said. “We need broad support and coordination from cities and towns across Montana. The summit will be an opportunity to add to the growing chorus of voices supporting passenger rail.”

Pre-registration for the virtual summit is now available at https://montanapassengerrailsummit.org/. Participants who pre-register will receive an email update when summit details are confirmed and full registration is available. The summit was originally scheduled to take place in-person in April but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Missoula County offices to start reopening to the public June 1; here’s what you need to know

cropped-missoula_county_courthouse1.jpg

Missoula County offices will begin to reopen to the public on Monday, June 1, with precautions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Precautions will look different in various buildings depending on the volume of foot traffic and interaction with the public. In general, facilities will have floor markings to indicate 6-foot spacing, plexiglass or other barriers between staff and the public, and hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes available for use. Staff and members of the public will be strongly encouraged or, in some offices, required to wear cloth face coverings in situations where social distancing is difficult.

Buildings also will have self-check stations set up for employees designed to review potential symptoms of COVID-19 and reminders to not report to work if they have symptoms. To facilitate this, employees will use designated entrances and exits that are separate from those the public use.

Reopening information for public-facing Missoula County departments is listed below. Guidelines and protocols are subject to change as the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve.

Clerk and Treasurer’s Office, Missoula County Courthouse First Floor, 200 W. Broadway

  • The office will open to the public Monday, June 1, with limited staff.
  • In-person services will be by appointment only. This includes motor vehicle registration, renewals and transfers, property tax payments or changes, and requests for birth certificates and other records.
  • Residents can call 406-258-4847 to make an appointment. Customers are encouraged to complete services online at missoulaclerk.us whenever possible.
  • The office encourages no more than one person to attend an appointment but will make accommodations for parties of two, such as a buyer and seller.
  • A maximum of four customers will be allowed in the office at one time: two at the open appointment windows and two in the waiting area.
  • Customers will be required to wear a cloth face covering to enter the office.
  • Hand sanitizer will be available for customers, and staff will wipe down pens and other items between customers.

Clerk of Court’s Office, Courthouse Second Floor

  • The office will open to the public Monday, June 1, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with limited staff.
  • In-person services will be by appointment-only by calling 406-258-4780.
  • The office requests no more than one person to attend an appointment but will make accommodations for marriage license applicants to appear together.
  • A maximum of three people will be allowed in the customer service area at a time.
  • Those with appointments should wait in their vehicle until called to limit congestion and must maintain physical distancing of 6 feet in the customer service area. Tape markings on the floor will indicate 6-foot distancing.
  • A cloth face covering is strongly encouraged for all customers. Disposable masks available upon request.
  • Hand sanitizer will be available for customers, and staff will wipe down pens, counters and other items between customers.
  • Only one person will be allowed in the public search area at a time. Customers should call 406-258-4780 to request admittance.
  • Marriage applicants may continue to apply for marriage licenses online, without an in-person visit.
  • Self-represented litigants are encouraged to continue to submit paperwork by email, fax, mail or drop box. The regular fee for email/fax will be waived.
  • Attorneys in cases not yet available for e-filing are encouraged to continue to submit pleadings by email, fax, mail or drop box. The regular fee for email/fax will be waived.
  • Email: clerkofcourt@missoulacounty.us
  • Fax: 406-258-4899

Commissioners’ Office, 199 W. Pine St.

  • Commissioners will continue to hold their public meetings virtually via Teams through June.
  • The public can check the commissioners’ schedule for information ahead of each upcoming public meeting.
  • Staff check email, mail and voicemail each day.

Community and Planning Services, 127 E. Main St.

  • Staff will begin transitioning to work at the office on June 1, though the office will remain closed to the public through that week and no in-person services will be offered.
  • Starting June 29, the office will open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.
  • Members of the public are strongly encouraged to wear masks when visiting the office, and disposable masks are available if needed.
  • Guests will need to use the self-check station and sign in (including date and contact info) to assist with contact tracing, if necessary.
  • The info desk will be staffed from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily to field questions from the public about zoning, permits, land use, projects or plans and can be reached by phone at 406-258-4642 or email at zoner@missoulacounty.us.
  • The department encourages the continued submission of documents and forms electronically when possible.

County Attorney’s Office, Courthouse Fourth Floor

  • The office will open to the public on June 1, with the majority of employees working in the building.
  • Hours will be 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Staff may work staggered schedules to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
  • Social distancing and other measures will be in place, and the office will modify its lobby and conference rooms to accommodate 6-foot distancing.
  • Staff and visitors are strongly encouraged to wear cloth face coverings. The office will have disposable face masks for those who need them.

Crime Victim Advocate Program, 317 Woody St.

  • The office will open to the public Monday, June 8, with limited staff.
  • Telephone-based services are strongly encouraged.
  • In-person services will be by appointment, except in cases of an emergency. This includes applications for orders of protection and other advocacy services.
  • People can call 406-258-3830 to make an appointment.
  • The office encourages no more than one person to attend an appointment but will make accommodations for parties of two.
  • A maximum of two clients will be allowed in the office at one time.
  • Clients will be required to wear a face covering to enter the office. We will provide you with a paper mask if you do not have your own.
  • Plan to maintain a 6′ distance from staff when visiting the office and/or when attending court with an advocate.
  • Hand sanitizer will be available for clients, and staff will wipe down pens and other items between customers.
  • For general information, visit www.missoulacounty/cva

District Court, Courthouse Second and Third Floors

  • District Court, which is a function of the state, will begin conducting in-person hearings throughout June. Those with questions should contact their attorney or the courts for additional information.

Elections Center, 140 N. Russell St.

  • The Elections Center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and providing voter services with social distancing and sanitation measures in place. Voters should expect longer wait times for voter registration, ballot replacement and other services.
  • The Elections Office must receive ballots by 8 p.m. Election Day; postmarks are not sufficient. Elections staff encourages voters who have not yet mailed their ballots to drop them at the Elections Office through June 1 or at a drive-thru ballot drop-off on Election Day.
  • On Election Day, voter registration and other services will be in the large green building on the east side of the lot, with voter parking and drop-off at the same end of the lot. The west end of the lot, closest to Russell Street, is exit-only and right-turn-only on to Wyoming Street.
  • All voters in line at 8 p.m. on Election Day will be served.
  • Drive-by ballot drop-off will be available at five locations across the county from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day:
    • Missoula County Fairgrounds
    • Lolo Elementary School
    • Bonner School
    • Seeley Lake Elementary
    • Frenchtown Fire Station

Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, 3400 Captain Rawn Way

  • Museum will open to the public on June 1 with the reduced summer hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with the 10 a.m. to noon reserved for vulnerable populations. The museum will also be open from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
  • Only 10 visitors will be allowed inside the museum at any given time.
  • Signs and floor markings will indicate 6-foot distancing where necessary, and a plexiglass barrier will be installed at the front desk.
  • Visitors will follow a one-way traffic pattern while viewing exhibits.
  • Museum will close an hour earlier than normal for cleaning and sanitizing.
  • Visitors are strongly encouraged to wear cloth face coverings, and staff and volunteers will wear them when in public areas of the museum.
  • The museum will provide a sign-in sheet for visitors to assist with contract tracing, if necessary.
  • Starting Monday, June 15, small groups of 25 people or fewer will be allowed for programs outside on the grounds with proper social distancing. The number of visitors inside the museum will continue to be limited to 10. Social distancing is strongly encouraged.
  • HMFM will start accepting book and artifact donations by appointment only on June 15.
  • Volunteers can resume activities on Wednesday, July 13.
  • Groups of up to 50 can gather on the grounds with social distancing starting July 13.
  • The museum plans to resume all normal activities when the state enters Phase Three.

Justice Court, Courthouse, First Floor

  • All court hearings other than trials, order of protection hearings, and landlord/tenant possession hearings will be held by conference call or video. Parties should not appear in court unless a judge or clerk instructs them to.
  • Anyone who receives a ticket should contact the clerk of court at 406-258-3470 to schedule an initial appearance.
  • Anyone physically appearing in a courtroom must use cloth face coverings. The court will provide disposable masks for those unable to provide their own.
  • The court will not begin conducting criminal jury trials again until July, at the earliest. Civil jury trials will not resume until September, at the earliest.
  • The court is officiating weddings again under limited circumstances.
  • Upon request, initial appearances, trials and other proceedings will be available to the public via Zoom.

Public Works, 6089 Training Drive

  • The main office in Missoula will be open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays starting Monday, June 1.
  • No more than two customers at a time will be allowed in the lobby. The department asks that when visitors see more than one customer inside that they wait in their vehicles until a customer leaves.
  • Signage will be in place to help customers adhere to social distancing while inside. Public Works recommends that customers wear masks, and a limited number of disposable masks will be available upon entry.
  • The Seeley Lake satellite office also will open to the public June 1, but by appointment only. Please call 406-396-8148 to make an appointment.
  • Public Works inspectors will resume all inspections, including interior inspections, starting June 1. The department encourages on-site customers and contractors to wear appropriate PPE during the inspection and follow social distancing guidelines.

New parking regulations in effect for Clark Fork River recreationists

Milltown parking and river access map
Map showing where parking is permitted to access the Clark Fork River near Bonner. 

If you’re planning to float or otherwise recreate on the Clark Fork River near Bonner this summer, county and state officials ask that you follow new parking and river access guidelines aimed at promoting safety and consistency and providing a better user experience.

Missoula County commissioners adopted a resolution in March prohibiting parking along parts of Juniper Drive and Tamarack Road in Bonner (see above map). Located near popular but undesignated, informal river access points, the two roadways had grown increasingly congested in recent years, posing safety and nuisance concerns for nearby residents, emergency vehicles and the public.

Instead, the county is working with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to encourage recreationists to park and access the river at the Confluence Area of Milltown State Park. Once you enter the parking lot, signage will direct you toward river access and other amenities. Park admission and parking is free for vehicles registered in Montana and $8 for out-of-state vehicles. (Montanans already pay for state park access when they register their vehicles in the state.)

“There have long been safety concerns surrounding river access and parking congestion along Tamarack Road during the busier times of the floating season,” said Chet Crowser, director of Missoula County Community and Planning Services. “The commissioners’ resolution and efforts to redirect river access and parking to Milltown State Park is another great example of collaboration between Missoula County and Fish, Wildlife and Parks to address safety concerns and provide a better recreational experience for the public.”

Missoula County Public Works has installed “no parking” signs along Tamarack Road and Juniper Drive from the junction of Highway 200 to the entrance of the Confluence Area. The Missoula County Sheriff’s Office will enforce the ordinance, which may include towing vehicles in violation. FWP will also post “no parking” signs along the entrance into the Confluence Area, as well as directional signage to help park and river users find the appropriate parking and access points.

Milltown State Park has 80 parking spaces, and a nearby stretch of road at the end of Juniper Drive not affected by the resolution can accommodate overflow and evening parking. There is no parking along interior park roads. While the park is open for day use from sunrise to sunset, the entrance gate is tentatively set to close at 7 p.m. due to COVID-19 concerns. This could change later in the season.

“Providing public access to the restored confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers is one of the founding tenets of Milltown State Park,” said Michael Kustudia, Milltown State Park manager.  “This strategy provides easier and safer access to the public, protects river resources, and addresses traffic and safety concerns of the community. We know this first year will be a learning experience for both our staff and the public, but the end result is a better river experience for everyone.”

In addition to this collaboration, Missoula County and FWP also worked with Three Rivers Collaborative, Downtown Missoula Partnership and Destination Missoula to publish a new map and guide to recreating on the Clark Fork. It’s available online at https://destinationmissoula.org/downtown-river-map.

Missoula health officer updates order to allow more businesses to open

Health Department

Missoula Health Officer Ellen Leahy today issued an update to her April 24 order as part of the gradual reopening plan for Missoula County. The main updates to the order include:

  • Businesses and individuals providing grooming, beauty, body art, piercing, massage, spa and similar services to open Monday, May 11. These entities can open as long as they create a service plan that supports employee health screening,
    social distancing, face-covering use, and enhanced cleaning and sanitizing.
  • The limit on events and gatherings such as fairs, concerts, races and sporting events, and private parties outside the home was raised to 50 people. Events with 50 or fewer must maintain six-foot social distancing. This does not replace the governor’s requirement to limit groups to 10 people when distancing cannot be maintained.
  • Farmers markets may open for the sale of unprocessed agricultural products starting Saturday, May 23. The market must have a plan to support social distancing, including the flow of customers and limiting the number of people in the market at one time. Vendors must space tables six feet apart. Vendors, employees, and volunteers are required to screen for symptoms and have provisions for personal hygiene and enhanced cleaning and sanitizing.
  • Schools may hold graduation, providing that they have a plan to keep families separated by six feet and can limit the total number of people to 250 based on guidance for large gatherings. The schools must provide a plan to support social distancing, personal hygiene and sanitation.

The local orders will remain in place until the governor moves to Phase Two, or the health officer rescinds or modifies them.

Gov. Bullock’s announcement on May 7 regarding the opening of gyms, fitness studios, some pools, movie theaters, and non-tactile museums are not affected by the local order.

These facilities may open Friday, May 15, providing they can follow the requirements outlined by the governor.

“We are at a different place than we were on April 24 when the original orders were issued,” said Cindy Farr, incident commander with the Missoula City-County Health Department’s COVID-19 response. “We had nine active cases. We were still getting new cases of COVID, and we were following two dozen close contacts. We are now at zero active cases and haven’t had a new case in over two weeks.”

Farr adds that while the outbreak appears to be winding down that COVID-19 is still a risk. The health department encourages community members to practice personal and community protective measures. Monitoring for symptoms, staying home when sick, washing hands, social distancing, and staying home as much as possible are still prevention measures that matter.

Additionally, the Health Board’s recommendation for wearing cloth face coverings in public spaces can decrease community spread.

“Keeping cases down at this point comes down to behavior and contact tracing. We can do the contact tracing and provide guidance to our community, but we still need the community’s help,” said Farr.

“Behavior matters. Social distancing and helping businesses and organizations follow the provisions is not only helpful for them but helpful for the community.”

For detailed descriptions of what these businesses will need to do to safely reopen, check out the health department’s guide online at missoula.co/reopeningmissoulacounty. If you have questions about how the local orders affect your business or organization, please call 406-258-4755.

COVID-19 and mental health: Missoula County resources

Mental health

These are difficult times, and it is natural and normal to be experiencing strong feelings. There are a lot of changes and directives coming at us right now, but one thing we want to make sure you do is be gentle with yourself and take some time for your mental health.

The Missoula City-County Health Department has compiled the following resources for anyone experiencing changes in their mental health. There are a lot of great online resources available as well as crisis and warm lines ready for your call. Please also take advantage of telehealth options with your therapists and counselors.

▪National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

▪Crisis Text Line: Text “MT” to 741-741
▪Missoula City-County Health Suicide Prevention office: 406-258-3881
▪Western Montana Mental Health Center: 406-532-8949
▪Montana Warmline (877-688-3377) is available 8 a.m.- 4 p.m. for people with a mental illness who want to talk to a peer who is in recovery for their own mental illness: http://montanawarmline.org
▪Shatter Proof has resources to help those dealing with substance abuse disorder during this time of COVID: https://www.shatterproof.org
▪Online meditation and calming apps such https://insighttimer.com/ and https://www.calm.com/ can be helpful.
▪Partners in Health has advice for maintaining mental health while social distancing: https://www.pih.org/article/10-mental-health-tips-coronavirus-social-distancing

Take care of yourself, and take care of each other. We’ll get through this!