By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Montana Department of Transportation is recommending that U.S. Highway 2 be expanded to four lanes between Havre and Fort Belknap.
MDT director Dave Galt said Thursday his department decided to recommend building a four-lane highway as the preferred alternative in the environmental impact statement being written for the 44-mile section of highway.
Galt said Thursday the reason MDT is endorsing a four-lane option is simple.
"I have a state law directing me to build a four-lane," he said.
MDT public information officer Lisa Vander Heiden said the department is making the recommendation now because it will receive a draft of the EIS for agency review next month. The EIS is expected to be completed by July.
Bob Sivertsen, president of the Highway 2 Association and a member of the citizens advisory committee working on the EIS, said Galt's support is good news. The association supports the widening of Highway 2 to four lanes across Montana as a means to stimulate economic development and improve safety.
"We need all the support we can get for the project and I would hope that the governor would make a statement likewise," he said today. "As time goes by we're hoping that we can garner support from the people who live by and are serviced by No. 2. All the support we can get will be a plus for us."
Galt said his department still forward its recommendation next week to the consultant writing the EIS, David Evans and Associates of Denver.
The endorsement doesn't guarantee the highway will end up being four lanes, Galt added.
"We still have to build a safe road," he said.
The National Environmental Policy Act requires that any project using federal money that could impact the environment has an EIS to study impacts, such as those on the natural environment and historical and archeological sites. The Highway 2 EIS also includes a study of the economic impacts of the different alternatives, the first time that has been a component of a highway EIS in Montana.
The Havre-to-Fort Belknap project got its start after the 2001 Montana Legislature passed a bill directing MDT to seek federal funding to widen Highway 2 to four lanes across the state.
Congress appropriated $2 million for the project, and MDT budgeted that money to do an environmental impact statement on the highway between Havre and Fort Belknap. MDT said that 44-mile section has a high need for improvement, and selected it as the first segment to consider widening to four lanes.
The purpose of the Havre-to-Fort Belknap EIS is to identify preferred alternatives to provide an efficient highway to support economic vitality; reduce roadway deficiencies; improve safety and improve traffic operations.
The alternatives David Evans and Associates are continuing to evaluate in the study are: not building anything, an alternative that is a requirement of the EIS process; an improved 40-foot- wide two-lane highway; an improved two-lane with passing lanes; an undivided four-lane; and a divided four-lane.
Galt said the study will continue to examine all alternatives, but MDT will recommend a four-lane option be selected.
Sivertsen said he hopes to discuss the economic report for the EIS at the next series of public meetings, to be held later this year. ICF Consulting finished the report for David Evans and Associates in June.
Sivertsen said he and other members of the advisory committee think items were left out of the study.
"From our perspective the report was incomplete and flawed," he said.
For instance, he said the study focused too much on distance to markets and high freight costs, while discounting the condition of the highway.
Sivertsen said Canada's success in exporting goods across North America shows distance to markets doesn't stop economic development, and that if Highway 2 were widened to four lanes and the economy were stimulated, competition would reduce the freight rates.
Sivertsen said he wants to ask ICF about those and other issues at the next meetings.