By Tim Leeds
Consultants on a U.S. Highway 2 project between Havre and Fort Belknap have come up with several possible designs.
The alternatives selected by David Evans and Associates will be carried into the next stage of the environmental impact statement the Denver firm is preparing for the Montana Department of Transportation.
The alternatives are: an improved two-lane highway with wider shoulders and a wider, flatter clear zone next to each shoulder; an improved two-lane with wider shoulders and clear zones and intermittent passing lanes; an undivided four-lane with wider shoulders and clear zones; and a divided four-lane with wider shoulders and clear zones.
The last alternative is to do nothing, an alternative the consultant is required by law to consider.
Pam Harada of Havre, a supporter of building a four-lane Highway 2, said this morning she is happy that the alternatives include four-lane options.
"I think, from the comments from the public at the Havre meeting, people overwhelmingly support a four-lane," she said.
A two-lane highway, even with passing lanes, wouldn't meet area safety needs, Harada said.
"(It) certainly doesn't meet the needs for economic development," she added.
Harada said she hopes the four-lane configuration will be given primary consideration in the study.
Debra Perkins-Smith, project manager for David Evans and Associates, said none of the alternatives carried forward have been identified as the best alternative at this point.
"Where we are now, anything is possible," she said.
The consulting firm has been holding public meetings and studying the area since it was contracted for the project in the summer of 2002.
Comments from residents have different depending on where they live, she said. People who live in the area where the construction may take place have focused more on specific safety issues and problem areas. People in Havre, which is immediately west of the construction, are focusing more on economic impacts, she said.
The Havre-to-Fort Belknap EIS was commissioned after the 2001 Legislature passed Senate Bill 3 directing MDT to widen Highway 2 to four lanes across Montana. The bill said the project could use only federal money, without impacting money for other highway construction in the state.
Congress in 2001 made two $1 million appropriations, which are being used to pay for the EIS. Federal law requires that an EIS is prepared for any project using federal money that could seriously impact the environment.
State Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, R-Glasgow and sponsor of SB 3, has said the main reasons for widening the road are improving safety and improving the economy of the Hi-Line.
David Evans hired ICF Consulting of Fairfax, Va., to do an economic study for the EIS. ICF determined that improvements are needed, primarily for safety, because of the highway's importance to the local communities. Building an improved two-lane would probably benefit the economy as much as building a four-lane would, ICF's report said.
Once David Evans has completed a draft, government agencies with jurisdiction over wetlands, farmland and other areas covered in the study will review it before it is released.
After agencies make their comments and the draft is revised, public meetings will be held on the draft.
The alternatives eliminated and the evaluation process used to determine which alternatives to carry forward will be discussed in the draft EIS, the David Evans newsletter said.
David Evans recommends that the highway should generally follow the existing route of Highway 2, with the space increased between the highway and the railroad near railroad crossings that have high use and safety problems.
Localized improvements, including left- and right-turn lanes, sidewalks and landscaping could be used with any of the alternatives.
Several possible alternatives were eliminated because they did not meet the project's screening criteria. Those alternatives included building a southern route that bypassed all of the communities, building separated one-way couplets in Chinook or Harlem, and aligning the highway with Frontage Road at Harlem.
The screening criteria were developed after the consultant collected public comments at the beginning of the project. The project also has to replace the current road with "an efficient, safe highway that is attractive to the needs of local communities, agriculture, industry, commerce and tourism."