By Tim Leeds
Most of the people at a public meeting on the environmental impact statement for U.S. Highway 2 east of Havre agreed that widening the highway to four lanes would be the best alternative.
"We have, without a doubt, the worse highway in the state," said Evelyn Krause of Havre. "I still feel if we don't get this done now, we'll have to wait another 75 years."
The meeting Monday night at Montana State University-Northern Student Union Building was the first to gather comment about what should be done to improve a 45-mile section of the road between Havre and Fort Belknap. About 20 people attended. About half were local elected or other government officials and political candidates.
The Montana Department of Transportation has hired David Evans and Associates, a consulting firm based in Denver, to conduct the EIS and produce a document detailing the best alternatives for improving that stretch of highway.
The EIS contains a component not usually included in a Montana EIS an analysis of the economic effects of improving the highway.
The plan is also on a shortened schedule, according to Mick Johnson, MDT's district administrator in Great Falls. EIS studies usually take three to five years.
MDT expects Krause and Associates "to produce a quality document in what we're going to consider a record time," Johnson said. "They have the horsepower to get this done."
When the document is complete, Johnson said, it will have "what we believe, what (the consultants) believe, what you believe, to be the best alternative."
The study on the highway is the result of Senate Bill 3, a law passed by the 2001 Legislature directing MDT to seek federal funding to widen Highway 2 to four lanes through Montana on or near its current route. The law says no state money can be used on the project.
Supporters of the concept, known as 4 for 2, say widening the highway will have two immediate benefits increased safety and stimulation of the lagging economy on the Hi-Line.
Pam Harada, a supporter of 4 for 2, said she hopes the EIS will look at the big picture. Just concentrating on funding available in the next couple of years and just looking at the effect on the area from Havre to Fort Belknap would be very shortsighted, she said.
In an interview, Harada said she thinks Montanans should come together to support widening Highway 2 as people in North Dakota have. A draft EIS proposing widening the highway to four lanes between Minot and Williston in North Dakota was recently submitted for public comment.
Once that project is completed, Highway 2 will be a four-lane road from Duluth, Minn., to Williston, leaving about 15 miles from Williston to the Montana-North Dakota border as a two-lane highway.
Widening the highway would help the economy, Harada said. That has been a main point of supporters of the North Dakota effort, she added.
Improving the highway in itself might not create a booming economy, but, she said, "If you don't have it you're certainly going to inhibit it.
"We have enough strikes against us. We need all the help we can get," she added.
A couple of people at the meeting were not looking for a four-lane Highway 2. Gene Meldrum, who lives a few miles east of Havre, said building an improved two-lane is a better goal because it is more likely to happen faster.
"We're just hoping for a safer road," he said.
Mary Schubring, Meldrum's neighbor, agreed. "I just can't imagine a four-lane," she said.
A better road, with a turning lane, is what's needed for safety reasons, she said.
"We've just cleaned up too many wrecks up there," she said.
MDT and Evans and associates have more public meetings this week, all running from 4:30 to about 7 p.m. with a presentation at 6 p.m.
The meeting tonight is at the Chinook Motor Inn, Wednesday's is at the Harlem City Hall, and Thursday's is at the Fort Belknap Bingo Hall.
Johnson said the public meetings are an essential part of the EIS process. People give "all kinds of information," he said, both about particular issues and generalities about the projects.
A citizens advisory committee has been created, to maintain two-way communications between the people in the corridor the project will take place in and the administrators of the project.
The public meetings include a public comment period, with the Evans and Associates staff taking notes about issues raised. A survey and a comment sheet are also provided to make written comment, and Evans and Associates has created a Web page for additional information.
Johnson said he hopes the variety of contact methods available will let everyone express their opinions and hopes for the project. The advisory council and the Internet and written sheets will let people who don't like to speak before a group or who are concerned that their opinions are unpopular still give their ideas, he said.
On the Net: US 2 Havre to Fort Belknap: www.USHwy2.com/index
Montana Department of Transportation: www.mdt.state.mt.us