By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - A bigger, better U.S. 2 across a 45-mile stretch of Montana's Hi-Line would do little to improve the economy of that area, a group of legislators was told Thursday.
Economic growth would hardly be affected by expanding the heavily traveled road between Havre and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation from two lanes to four lanes, according to the consulting firm hired by the state to study alternatives for rebuilding the highway.
Tourism, agriculture, manufacturing, energy, retail and service businesses, and government would have the same low chance of benefiting, said Joseph Hart, a vice president for the Denver consulting firm of David Evans and Associates.
This was the first time those conclusions have been presented to lawmakers. A group of advocates for widening U.S. 2 have already criticized the findings and vowed to hire their own consultant. The report, part of a more extensive environmental study, was presented to the Revenue and Transportation Committee.
Sen. Bob Story, chairman, said the report seems to indicate the overall study will ultimately recommend a two-lane version of the existing highway - with passing lanes added.
Such a conclusion would contradict a 2001 law that ordered U.S. 2 be transformed into a four-lane highway. But, Story noted, the directive cannot be carried out unless the state gets millions in federal money that the state can spend without matching with its own money, and that's unlikely to happen anytime soon.
The Park City Republican said the most likely scenario is that, without such federal highway aid, the state will end up merely rebuilding the highway into a two-lane road with passing lanes.
The consultants have estimated that just improving the present road would cost about $70 million, adding passing lanes would cost $73.5 million and an undivided four-lane highway would carry a $94.5 million price tag. A divided four-lane would cost nearly $107 million.
The issue of economic benefit is important because supporters of the U.S. 2 bill in the 2001 Legislature touted it as a means of boosting the economy in a region of the state badly in need of help.
While tourism is the sector with the greatest potential for growth in the area, adding more lanes on a highway will do little, the consultants said. Other steps, such as better signs, turning lanes and safety improvements would bring more benefit, they said.
As for agriculture and manufacturing, the distance to markets is the major issue that prevents more growth and not the width of the highway, Hart said. A wider road might encourage more people to travel to Havre for shopping and help retail stores there, but that could come at the expense of businesses in the smaller communities, he said.
Another portion of the study found that the cost of adding two lanes would far outweigh benefits such as reduced accidents, lower vehicle operating costs and less travel time, Hart said. But he emphasized that such a conclusion is not unusual in rural highway projects serving relatively low-traffic areas where safety problems are not severe.