By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A report on the economic impacts of widening U.S. Highway 2 between Havre and Fort Belknap said the area relies heavily on the highway for its transportation needs, but that widening it to four lanes would not have much more impact than an improved two-lane highway.
"We conclude that major capacity improvements, such as additional through lanes, to the U.S. 2 segment on their own are unlikely to generate significant regional economic development benefits," the report said.
Blaine County Commissioner Don Swenson, a member of the citizens advisory committee for the environmental impact statement the study is part of, disagrees.
"To me, it's got to help. It's a start," he said today.
The project is the result of a bill passed by the 2001 Legislature directing the Montana Department of Transportation to seek special congressional appropriations to widen the highway to four lanes across Montana.
The extra lanes are intended to increase safety and stimulate the economy along the route.
The 45-mile section now under review is the first proposed for widening.
Swenson said he believes that if local residents can't convince MDT of the need for a four-lane Highway 2 here, it's unlikely the highway will be widened elsewhere in Montana.
"The whole project is supposed to go from North Dakota to the end of the state," he said. "If we don't get a start here we're not going to go."
David Evans and Associates is the Denver firm hired by MDT to prepare an EIS for reconstructing the highway between Havre and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. David Evans contracted with ICF Consulting, a 34-year-old firm with offices in Fairfax, Va., to conduct a study on the economic impacts of construction on the highway.
The economic component of the study will be weighed equally with other components, including impacts to the area's geology, biological environment and cultural, historical and archeological environments, said Karl Helvik of MDT.
Jason Giard, engineering services supervisor with MDT, presented copies of the first part of the report to the Hill and Blaine county commissions and Havre Mayor Bob Rice at a meeting Wednesday.
The report analyzes the impact of construction on existing economic conditions in the study area. The second part will analyze the financial benefits compared with the costs of different construction alternatives. Helvik said ICF is working on that report and hopes to have it completed in time to be incorporated in the draft EIS, scheduled to be printed in November.
A major possibility for economic growth in the area is tourism, the report said, but improving the highway is unlikely to play a role in that development.
The report cites a state-sponsored study that said about 500,000 tourists passed through Hill County in 1996. Only about 10,000 to 15,000 of those tourists stop annually at area attractions, like Bear Paw Battlefield, the Blaine County Museum, the Wahkpa Chu'gn bison kill site, Havre Beneath the Streets and Fort Assinniboine, the report said.
Improvements like better signage, additional turning lanes and safety improvements might get more tourists to stop, the report said, but increasing the number of lanes is unlikely to help.
"Given the fairly high level of (traffic) on U.S. 2, it does not appear that major capacity improvements to the U.S. 2 segment would lead to significant growth in the local tourism sector at this time," the report said.
The report suggests, however, that local attractions could double their out-of-town visitors in 10 to 15 years, which would require infrastructure investments, including more motel and hotel space.
Some supporters of the four-lane configuration say that if the highway were widened to four lanes, more tourists and travelers would use Highway 2 instead of using the interstates.
The report said there is anecdotal evidence that the condition of Highway 2 encourages some people to take other routes. If improvements to Highway 2 shifted some traffic to the northern route, that would not create new economic development, but a shifting of existing economic activity from elsewhere, it said.
The Highway 2 route is marginally shorter to some locations in Montana and the West Coast, the report said.
Minneapolis to East Glacier is about 20 miles shorter on Highway 2. It's 1,102 miles instead of 1,122 miles using Montana Highway 200 through Lewistown, or 1,125 miles using Interstate 90, the report said.
For other trips, such as Minneapolis to Seattle, the trip is shorter through Lewistown or using I-90 or I-94 than using Highway 2. The trip is 1,700 miles on Highway 2, 1,661 miles using I-90 or I-94, and 1,611 miles using Highway 200, the report said.
The report said that much of the business activity in the area relies on Highway 2 to transport people and goods between communities and to markets.
A primary use of the road is commuting to work or for shopping, the report said. A large percentage of people on the Fort Belknap Reservation drive to Harlem, only a couple of miles away, to shop, and large numbers of people from the reservation, Harlem and Chinook drive to Havre to shop, it said.
About 30 percent of people in Havre drive out of town for work, and 4.4 percent drive out of the county to work. About 34 percent of Chinook residents drive out of town, and about 15 percent out of Blaine County, to work, and about 60 percent of Fort Belknap residents drive out of town and 7 percent out of Blaine County to work, the report said.
People interviewed for the report said the condition of the road and the mix of vehicles, including cars, semis and farm equipment, can cause delays and that driving conditions are unsafe. The report concludes that a well-functioning Highway 2 is critical to economic activity. Construction to improve the highway, like wider shoulders, new turning lanes and improved signage, appears necessary to sustain the area's economy and provide for economic growth, it said.
The report said the high cost of shipping is a difficulty for some businesses in the area, including agricultural producers and manufacturers. The distance to most major markets and suppliers, as well as a relative shortage of incoming freight, contributes to higher shipping prices, it said.
A manufacturer of vacuum lifters, Woods Power-Grip Co., considered Havre when it relocated from Wolf Point in 1989, the report said. While the company did not say the configuration or condition of the highway was a factor in its decision to relocate in Laurel instead, it now says it receives better shipping rates because of its location. The company says it would be difficult to operate in Havre because of the higher rates, the report said.
The report lists several failed attempts to start businesses in the area, including a premium pork business that would have been north of Havre; Bio-Gold, a proposed plant in Rudyard to make particle board out of straw; and Water Chef, which made water coolers and filters in Havre.
None of the businesses listed the condition of Highway 2 as a reason for failure, the report said. Lack of capital or market development were the primary reasons for their failures, it said.
Agriculture, the mainstay business of the region, would not be helped much by a four-lane, the report said.
Most wheat farmers in the area use the highway to transport their product to elevators that load it onto trains, the report said. The importance of the highway is increasing as the number of elevators used by the railroad diminishes. Most grain must now be loaded in Harlem or Havre.
Widening the highway to four lanes would do little to help farmers transporting grain, although safety improvements need to be made, the report said.
Almost all cattle are shipped out of the area by truck, and Highway 2 improvements could increase safety and reduce conflict between the cattle trucks and other vehicles, the report said. But the two-lane configuration is probably not hurting that business, it said.
Value-added crops and products, and businesses to produce or market those commodities, would probably increase the use of Highway 2, the report said.
While manufacturing is a minor part of the area's economy, and has declined in the past 10 years, some manufacturing in the area has the potential to expand, the report said. While improved highway conditions would help that expansion, a four-lane highway is not a prerequisite for it, the report said.
Helvik said the draft EIS will be printed in November, with a 45-day comment period starting once it is filed with the Federal Register. A public hearing will be scheduled in December, during the comment period, he said.
Swenson said that whether the result of the EIS is a four-lane or not, the work on the highway will be an improvement. MDT was required to stop four projects scheduled to begin in the area once the EIS began.
"Even if we don't get a four-lane we'll get a better highway than without the study. This way maybe we'll end up with passing lanes and better turnouts," he said.
"I'm still going to push the four-lane as far as I can push it," Swenson said.