By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Highway 2 Association is unhappy with the results of an economic study about widening U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes, and is hiring its own consultant to review the study.
ICF Consulting studied the effect of widening U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes between Havre and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation as part of an environmental impact statement for that highway project. ICF found that widening that stretch of highway would have little economic impact.
Bob Sivertsen, president of the Highway 2 Association, said he thinks that's because the scope of the study was too limited. The study should have looked at the economic impact of creating a four-lane corridor from Minneapolis to Seattle, which was the intent of a law passed in 2001 by the Montana Legislature, he said.
"I've been pressing this issue as to what a four-lane would do for the corridor," Sivertsen said. "If you only build the four-lane in a 45-mile stretch, it will do nothing for economic development. It will do nothing for the communities. It would be the same highway we have had for 75 years. Unless we look at the entire corridor, the study is incomplete and flawed."
Sivertsen said he made a proposal to one consultant, whom Sivertsen declined to name, but hasn't had a reply yet.
"He was vitally interested in it," Sivertsen added.
Sivertsen said the study will be paid for by the association, using a fund accumulated from membership dues. The cost of the study hasn't been determined yet, he said.
MDT hired the Denver firm David Evans and Associates to write the EIS. The project was started after the Legislature passed a bill directing MDT to widen Highway 2 to four lanes across Montana, using congressional appropriations so that no state money would be needed.
MDT selected the section between Havre and Fort Belknap as the first section to work on.
Lisa Vander Heiden, public information officer with MDT, said MDT director Dave Galt knows about the association's plan to hire a consultant. She said he is willing to offer the association names of possible consultants.
"He said he understands that they need to do what they feel is right, just as MDT had to work within the scope of the environmental statement," which limits the study to the 45-mile section, she said.
Vander Heiden said Galt thinks the additional study is not necessary because MDT has another study near completion that examines the economic impact of widening highways in general in Montana. That study, being written by Cambridge Systematics, can be applied o Highway 2 and the concept of creating an economic corridor once it is completed.
She said Galt doesn't know what impact the Highway 2 Association's review would have on the EIS. According to Vander Heiden, Galt said that if it is completed in time it can be submitted as a public comment to the EIS and will be looked at by David Evans and MDT before a decision is made.
The draft of the EIS will probably be out for public comment in February or March.
Representatives of MDT and David Evans have said that the economic study is only one part of the EIS, and the statement could still recommend a four-lane highway between Havre and Fort Belknap.
But Sivertsen said he thinks the results of the economic study will create an uphill battle for widening the highway.
"This is going to weigh heavily on the decision," he said.
Sivertsen said he realizes the scope of the MDT project, which has to be broken into manageable sections, limited ICF's study.
"I'm not picking on those folks. They're doing what's in the role and scope of the study, but if that leaves us with an incomplete study, that says to me we have some more work to do."
He added that he told the consultants from the start that limiting the study would affect its outcome.
"I said, 'Why don't you write your report today because I can tell you how it would come out," Sivertsen said.
Jeff Ang-Olson of ICF could not be reached for comment today.
He said in November that when he worked on the study he interviewed business owners, including people whose businesses had failed or never gotten off the ground. Those people didn't say the two-lane configuration of Highway 2 was a problem, he said. Most cited lack of capital or distance to markets as the main problems, he said.
Sivertsen said that seems to contradict what businesses say in general. Most businesses want to be near a four-lane, and won't consider locating in an area with a two-lane, he said.
Sivertsen said the Highway 2 Association considers widening the highway to be the first step toward economic development. Other projects to revitalize the economy would also have to be done.
"It's the first step. It's not the sole answer to our plight, that's for sure. But without a four-lane we can't even go out and vie for those businesses," Sivertsen said.
Sivertsen said the final goal of the association is to create a four-lane economic corridor across most of Highway 2 from the Great Lakes to the West Coast.
Most of Highway 2 in North Dakota is four-lane. The North Dakota Department of Transportation is working on an EIS to widen the highway to four lanes from Minot to Williston, which will leave about 15 miles of two-lane from Williston to the Montana border.
Francis Ziegler, director of project development for the department, said there are no plans to widen the last 15 miles to the Montana border. Ziegler would not speculate whether North Dakota would complete the last 15 miles if Montana widened the highway within its borders.
If the highway is widened across Montana and North Dakota, that will leave a relatively short stretch of the highway across Idaho and most of the highway across Washington as two-lane. Sivertsen said the highway intersects with interstate highways at Spokane, Wash., and Fargo, N.D., that create a four-lane corridor from Minneapolis to Seattle, but his goal is to expand the Highway 2 corridor further, across Idaho and Washington and to the east.
He said he is in the initial stages of creating a national Highway 2 Association to work on that project.
"I'd like to extend No. 2 all the way to the Great Lakes," he said. "It's going to take some doing, it's going to take some time, but the interest is certainly there. We want to reinvigorate little communities and the way you do that is build a four-lane."