By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Supporters of an effort to widen U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes across Montana on Tuesday accused Gov. Judy Martz and Montana Department of Transportation director Dave Galt of betraying their efforts.
"The problem is with the director of DOT and the Martz administration," said Bob Sivertsen, president of the Highway 2 Association. "Let's not beat around the bush here. We've been shanghaied by these folks."
Martz spokesman Chuck Butler said this morning that Martz supports boosting the economies of rural Montana.
"Governor Martz was pleased to sign the 4 for 2 bill into law in 2001 because it identified a way to help support rural Montana. However, funding at both the state and federal level has been scarce for a number of obvious reasons," Butler said. "To say that rural Montana has been betrayed is disingenuous and does not provide the people of the Hi-Line with all the facts."
Sivertsen was one of about 50 people who attended the first of four public meetings being held to discuss a draft environmental impact statement prepared by David Evans and Associates for proposed improvements to the roadway between Havre and Fort Belknap. The meetings continue tonight in Chinook, then move to Fort Belknap on Thursday afternoon and Harlem on Thursday night.
The EIS was ordered after the 2001 Legislature enacted a law directing MDT to widen Highway 2 to four lanes across the state, using only federal money earmarked for the project. The 45-section is the first proposed for possible widening.
Sivertsen and others said the economic studies being used in the EIS are flawed and incomplete because they don't look at the impact of creating a four-lane transportation corridor from Minneapolis to Seattle that would run across the Hi-Line, a long-term goal of the law.
A study done by ICF Consulting for the EIS and a statewide study being done by Cambridge Systematics said the economic benefits of widening the highway to four lanes would not justify the extra expense. The Federal Highway Administration cited those results when it selected a widened two-lane highway with passing lanes as its initial preference for the Havre-to-Fort Belknap project.
MDT has selected a four-lane configuration as its preferred alternative, saying it's required to do so by the 2001 law.
Sivertsen said the restriction in Senate Bill 3 to use only federal money to widen Highway 2 was added to the 2001 bill at the request of MDT. It was done so projects to widen Highway 2 won't impact other MDT projects, Sivertsen said.
"What they're saying is we're second-class citizens," he added.
Dennis Morgan of Havre said he thinks supporters of widening the highway got the impression that the state supported their efforts when the Havre-to-Fort Belknap EIS started.
"But I think we were misled," Morgan said.
State Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, R-Glasgow, the sponsor of the 2001 bill, said he proposed it for two reasons: to make the highway safer and to help the Hi-Line's economy.
"We were dying and I wanted us to survive," he said.
Kitzenberg said Martz and Galt both assured him they would work to support widening the highway, but they have not. He said the economic study for the EIS, which only examined widening the 45-mile section instead of looking at the impacts of creating a Minneapolis-to-Seattle four-lane corridor, shows that.
"This study is flawed. The sad news is it has big ramifications," he said.
Hal Cooper, a civil engineering consultant from Kirkland, Wash., who was hired by the Highway 2 Association to review the EIS economic study, said the study is flawed for several reasons.
Its "fatal flaw" is that it only looks at 45 miles of the highway, he said.
Cooper said the assumptions used in the ICF study are incorrect. That is partly because the study assumes there will be no push for economic development, he said.
The study's assumptions of traffic growth and of savings to truckers if the highway is widened to four lanes are too low, and it doesn't look at demographics, especially the high unemployment rate and population growth on Indian reservations, Cooper said.
He proposed that Montana join North Dakota and South Dakota and southern Canada in building wind-driven and coal-fired power plants as well as transmission lines to send the electricity to the West Coast. That would require a four-lane Highway 2, Cooper said.
Mick Johnson, MDT Great Falls District administrator, said the Cambridge Systematics study is being done to look at the impact of widening highways to four lanes across the state. That study is about to be released, he said.
Debra Perkins-Smith of David Evans and Associates told the group Tuesday night that a preliminary analysis of widening Highway 2 across the state using the system developed by Cambridge Systematics in its study has results comparable to the ICF study.
Barney Leeds of Havre said if the Havre-to-Fort Belknap project builds a two-lane with passing lanes, it will be difficult to ever widen Highway 2 to four lanes.
"That sets this project back even further," he said.
Leeds said he doesn't expect to live to see the highway widened across the entire state.
"But I've got kids and they're going to have kids," he said. "If you don't start now, it's not going to get started."