By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Members of the U.S. Highway 2 Citizens Advisory Committee say they disagree with the preliminary findings of an environment impact statement that recommends a two-lane road between Havre and Fort Belknap.
Some committee members said they believe government agencies working on the EIS are predisposed not to approve a four-lane highway.
"This EIS in its present form together with the powerful government forces pushing against the 4 lane idea may stop any improvement of any kind for 20 years," said a written statement by committee member Robert Sharples, who owns the Chinook Motor Inn. "I do believe that there could be bigger and better things happening if we could have an expanded highway system in Northern Montana."
Sharples was one of seven of the committee's 14 members who submitted written comments recommending that a four-lane highway be built. Several committee members said the written comments represent the thoughts of the entire committee.
The Havre-to-Fort Belknap project is the first under a law passed by the 2001 Legislature directing MDT to widen the U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes, using only federal money to do so. Before construction can begin, MDT must prepare an environmental impact statement that evaluates various options for building the road. Those options range from making no changes to building a divided four-lane highway.
The Federal Highway Administration, which will make the final decision on the highway's configuration, said in the draft EIS that it prefers a two-lane road with turning and passing lanes.
FHWA said a four-lane configuration would not provide significantly greater safety or economic benefits, would have greater impact on the environment, would cost more and would require special funding.
Ted Burch, an FHWA field operations engineer, said today the agency did not have a preferred configuration going into the EIS, which is why it examined all of the different alternatives. The preferred alternative could still change based on the information in the EIS, he said.
The Montana Department of Transportation is supporting a four-lane configuration, saying the state law requires it to.
Other than that, MDT director Dave Galt said today, his department doesn't have a predisposition as to what the configuration should be.
"We don't have an opinion on that as far as whether we want a four-lane or a two-lane," Galt said.
The comments of the CAC members will be incorporated into the EIS.
Blaine County Commissioner Delores Plumage wrote that a four-lane is needed for economic survival.
"The population will grow and the economic situation will improve (with a four-lane); however, the area will surely die with pitiful road conditions," she wrote.
Another CAC member, Blaine County Commissioner Don Swenson, wrote that the four-lane configuration is a "great idea."
"But that's all that it is," he wrote. "This whole project has had failure written all over it. From the beginning the State of Montana is not behind it nor is the Federal Government and without these two players this whole 4 for 2 will not work."
He said that something needs to be done quickly, and if the state and federal government will not support the idea, an improved two-lane is better than no improvement.
"I have pried the cold dead fingers of our local people off the steering wheel of too many accidents on this section of road and I feel we cannot wait twenty or thirty years for a four lane road," Swenson wrote.
Havre Mayor and CAC member Bob Rice, who did not submit written comments, said today he prefers a four-lane, but doesn't think it's going to happen.
"If we can get a four-lane it's great. I don't think we should jeapardize the entire project" by insisting on a four-lane, he said. "It's been delayed one time already and I don't think that's the answer."
Several highway projects planned between Havre and Harlem were postponed until the EIS is completed.
Highway 2 Association President Bob Sivertsen, who also serves on the CAC, said Tuesday that studies have shown that businesses won't relocate to areas that don't have four-lane highways.
"And that leaves us isolated if all we have is a cow trail for the 21st century," he said. "We've been talking about economic development in this corridor for 30 years, but you can't get any takers if you don't have a decent transportation system."
Sivertsen said he believes supporters can still persuade FHWA to endorse a four-lane alternative. If it doesn't, he said, the next step may be in court. Because of the 2001 law, he doesn't believe MDT can legally build anything but a four-lane, he said.
"I think the law is really specific and they are going to have to deal with that," Sivertsen said.
The draft EIS said the two-lane alternative is a legal option if the federal government will not provide funds to build a four-lane.
The Federal Highway Administration said an improved two-lane with passing and turning lanes would meet the needs stated in the project, including supporting economic vitality and increasing the highway's safety and efficiency. It also could be funded in the standard procedure used by MDT.
A study included in the draft found that widening the 45 miles of highway to four lanes would not improve the economy significantly more than building an improved two-lane. Some committee members said in their comments that the study used flawed assumptions.
Sharples said the EIS incorrectly assumes that only areas with a strong economy can benefit from widening a highway.
"The argument out there is that there has to be development before we can get a four-lane," he said. "That's what the EIS says, and we all kind of disagree with that."
Havre Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Debbie Vandeberg said in her comments that the study should have looked at the impact of widening the highway across the entire state.
"Only taking the 45 mile segment of the over 600 miles that stretches across Montana along Highway 2 is an inaccurate view of the real economic impact a 4 lane highway could do for this area," Vandeberg said. "I feel the economic impact of the study is inadequate."
The consultants and MDT have said in previous interviews that the scope of the study has to be determined by the size of the project. Studying the effect of widening the entire highway is out of the scope of the Havre-to- Fort Belknap project, they said.
Vandeberg said new and proposed businesses in the area would benefit from a four-lane highway, and it would increase the already high number of tourists who pass through the area. An increased number of U.S. Border Patrol agents and new programs and facilities at Montana State University-Northern also illustrate the need for a four-lane highway, she said.
CAC member John Healy, transportation planner for the Fort Belknap Indian Community, said the tribal government has supported and continues to support widening the highway to four lanes.
The draft EIS was released to state and federal agencies for review. Once all comments are incorporated into the study, the EIS will be released for public comment. The FHWA will make its final decision after the public comment period.