By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - The state Department of Transportation has dropped its support for widening a heavily traveled portion of U.S. 2 into four lanes, the director announced today.
Dave Galt said his preference for improving the two-lane road between Havre and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation by adding some passing and turn lanes was dictated by findings in an extensive environmental study of various options.
That report, which considered traffic, safety, economic concerns, cost, environmental and community effects, and public comments, supports a two-lane project for the 45-mile stretch of highway, he said.
''I have a responsibility to the taxpayers of this state to follow that process and evaluate the alternatives on their merit,'' Galt said before flying to Havre early today to announce his decision to community leaders.
''People deserve an honest answer and I'm going up there today and tell them we bent over backward to try to make this thing work,'' he said. ''It's time to tell them this is the best we can do.''
The issue of widening the 700-mile highway across the Hi-Line has been hotly debated for almost four years, since the 2001 Legislature passed a law requiring a four-lane road. But the law also said the state could use only federal funds and not rob money from any other highway projects.
Since then, community, business and government leaders from along the Hi-Line have promoted a four-lane expansion, saying it would help revive the sluggish economy of northern Montana. ''Four for 2'' became a battle cry in towns throughout the region.
In choosing an improved two-lane design, Galt said he had to decide whether to violate the 2001 law or the requirements imposed under federal and state laws governing environmental studies for such projects.
He said the Federal Highway Administration has said it would not approve transforming U.S. 2 into a four-lane highway and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would not issue permits for a four-lane project that would affect wetlands along the route.
''The feds either had to agree to build a four- lane or we had to agree to two lanes, or we sit here and fight,'' Galt said. ''I just think that it makes no sense to continue to fight, and it makes sense to build the people up there a better road.''
Galt said he realizes his decision won't be popular on the Hi-Line, where many people saw a four-lane highway as an economic lifesaver.
''Part of it is desperation,'' he said. ''In tough economic times, people latch on to anything.''
Financing a four-lane project was a problem from the beginning because finding the federal money would have been difficult, Galt said. An improved two-lane version could be handled like any other highway construction project where a mix of state and federal money is used, he added.
The $1.8 million environmental impact statement focused on the Havre-Fort Belknap section because state officials felt it was the best test of the need for four lanes, Galt said. If that stretch of U.S. 2 did not warrant such a road, then no part of the highway east of the Continental Divide would, he said.
The study concluded that a four-lane highway between Havre and Fort Belknap would cost $94.5 million, or $21.1 million more than the two-lane option.
He said the study also found that a four-lane road is unlikely to have significant benefit for the regional economy.
The report found that traffic on the Havre-Fort Belknap section of U.S. 2, while heavier than on other eastern Montana stretches of the road, is relatively light when compared to some other two-lane highways in the state.
The study said any of the construction alternatives for U.S. 2 would make the road safer, but the difference between an improved two-lane highway and four-lane road would be just 0.04 accidents for every million miles traveled.
Galt said construction on the preferred two-lane project could begin as early as 2008.
Choosing a two-lane alternative for the Havre-area portion of the highway does not rule out a widening to four lanes elsewhere on U.S. 2, he said. The road west of Kalispell and between West Glacier and Columbia Falls are two examples where four lanes may be justified, he added.