By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Highway 2 Association is asking Northern Montana businesses whether they would benefit from widening U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes.
Bob Sivertsen, president of the association, said Wednesday the group has hired a consultant to review the economic component of the environmental impact statement being prepared for work on a 45-mile stretch of the highway, and is hand-delivering four-question surveys to every business on the highway between the North Dakota state line and Libby.
The economic component, done by ICF Consulting for the EIS, reviewed whether widening the highway between Havre and Fort Belknap to four lanes would benefit the economy. It found that a four-lane would have no more benefit than an improved two-lane highway.
Sivertsen said that study was too limited because it didn't ask about the benefits of a four-lane highway across Montana. Sivertsen has long maintained that a four-lane Highway 2 would be key to economic "reinvigoration" on the Hi-Line.
He said he hopes the survey results and a study being done by the association's consultant will be done by March 1.
"I want to get that completed as quickly as possible," he said.
Sivertsen said the association intends to submit the results of its work as public comments to the EIS.
Colleen Kirby Roberts, project planner for David Evans and Associates of Denver, which is writing the EIS, said today that her firm will include any information submitted by the Highway 2 Association in its final report.
"We will certainly consider anything the U.S. 2 association gives us," she said.
The association hired Cooper Consulting of Kirkland, Wash., to review the economic study conducted by ICF Consulting as part of the environmental impact statement.
"What he will do is review that document and give his spin to the whole thing," Sivertsen said. "We take exception to that report."
The Montana Department of Transportation commissioned the Havre- to-Fort Belknap EIS after the 2001 Legislature passed a law directing it to find federal money to widen Highway 2 to four lanes across the state.
Several projects that would have rebuilt sections of the highway between Havre and Fort Belknap to modern 40-foot two-lane highway specifications had to be put on hold until the EIS is completed.
The Havre-to-Fort Belknap EIS is the first such study in Montana to include an analysis of the economic impacts of construction as part of the study.
One of the purposes of the 2001 law was to create an economic corridor across the northern part of the state, paralleling the corridor the interstate highways create across the southernpart of Montana.
Sivertsen said a major problem with the ICF study is that it only looks at the impacts of widening about 45 miles of the highway instead of looking at the impacts of having a corridor from the West Coast to Minneapolis or farther east.
Jeff Ang-Olson of ICF said Wednesday that the study he did was limited to the 45-mile stretch by the definition of the project.
"All our work was done in the context of the EIS. That's a formal document, a formal process, that's required to address the project, with a capital 'P," Ang-Olson said. "If your goal was to look at the entire corridor across Montana, that would be a different study."
Kirby Roberts said part of the reason the study was limited to the 45-mile section is that highway projects have to be defined as specific sections of highway where improvements can actually be designed and built.
Karl Helvik, MDT's lead contact for the EIS, said the department and the Federal Highway Administration are preparing a response to Sivertsen's question about why the study was limited to the Havre-to-Fort Belknap section of Highway 2. He expects the response to be ready by the end of next week.
Helvik said that since the economic impacts are an important consideration in the project, additional comments like the Highway 2 Association's study and survey could be factors in the Federal Highway Administration's decision on improvements to the 45-mile section.
MDT announced last fall that it was recommending a four-lane configuration for the project, as required by the 2001 law.
Helvik said he expects the initial draft to be sent to agencies involved within the next few weeks, including the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Once the agencies return the draft, the statement will be rewritten to accommodate the agency suggestions, concerns and comments. Helvik said that once the draft is complete, a public comment period will follow.
A public meeting will be scheduled during that comment period.
Kirby Roberts said David Evans' role will be to objectively present all findings of the study, including the recommendations of each agency involved and public comments. The highway administration has the final decision about the configuration of the project.