By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
HARLEM - Highway 2 Association president Bob Sivertsen said at a public meeting Thursday that he wanted to end this week's series of meetings about widening U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes on an optimistic note.
"It can happen, but it's up to us," he told about 30 people in Harlem on Thursday night.
Sivertsen said supporters of 4 for 2 need to give the Federal Highway Administration good, factual reasons why the highway should be widened to four lanes.
"If we don't, that's our own fault," he said.
The meeting was the fourth in a series to collect public comment on a draft environmental impact statement being prepared for Highway 2 from Havre to Fort Belknap. The project was the first selected after the 2001 Legislature enacted a law requiring the Montana Department of Transportation to widen Highway 2 to four lanes across the state using only federal money.
FHWA is recommending an improved two-lane road for the stretch, with passing lanes. The Highway Administration has the final say on the project.
Dale Paulson and Ted Burch of FHWA and Mick Johnson, Great Falls District administrator for MDT, urged people to submit comments if they disagree. Comments will be collected for the EIS through Aug. 13, after which MDT and FHWA will review them and make their final decision late this year.
"The decision will be made from what's in these books," Burch said, pointing at the draft EIS.
"If anything's in there that's not right or there seems to be something we missed, we want to know about it," Paulson added.
FHWA said it selected a two-lane alternative because the draft EIS shows it provides the economic and safety benefits that are goals of the project, while costing less and having less impact on the environment.
At a meeting held at 11:30 a.m. Thursday in Fort Belknap, John Allen said he would rather keep the highway with two lanes.
"I think a two-lane highway is adequate, with wider shoulders," he said, adding that he likes living in a quiet area with less traffic.
"That's rural America. I would like to keep it that way," Allen said.
Sivertsen and others, including state Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, R-Glasgow, who sponsored the 2001 bill directing MDT to widen the highway, said at the meetings that Gov. Judy Martz and MDT director Dave Galt are trying to circumvent the law and build an improved two-lane Highway 2.
At the Havre meeting Tuesday, Kitzenberg said Galt and Martz had "betrayed" the effort, and Sivertsen said they had "shanghaied" the project.
Johnson said in Harlem that the department doesn't have any hidden agenda in the EIS process.
"I have a goal up here and that's to build some safe roads," he said. "I don't care one way or another" whether it's two or four lanes.
Sivertsen said the fact that the economic study done by ICF Consulting for the EIS was limited to the project boundaries rather than the impact of creating a four-lane corridor from Minneapolis to Seattle shows someone was trying to skew the results of the EIS.
"Somewhere along the line something took place," Sivertsen said at the Harlem meeting. "The finger points to Dave Galt and Judy Martz."
Johnson said the economic study was limited to the 45-mile section because that is how an EIS is prepared: for a definite area with defined boundaries.
"This is an environmental impact statement and that statement has logical termini," Johnson said. "If you want an economic study from Minneapolis to Seattle, that's something else."
Johnson said projects on rural highways generally don't have a positive economic benefit in relation to the cost. They are done for other reasons, like improving safety or the highway's ability to handle the amount of traffic, he said.
When Don Richman of Harlem asked if Galt had attended any of the public meetings, Johnson said the director doesn't attend EIS public meetings - he has staffers who do it for him.
Johnson said he has briefed Galt every day following the meetings, and Galt will review the public comments.
"He has heard them," Johnson said. "He has heard the names he's being called and the governor's being called."
Martz spokesman Chuck Butler and MDT spokeswoman Lisa Vander Heiden said the governor and Galt don't attend the meetings because they don't want to influence the comments being made.
"We don't want to usurp the opportunity for the public to be heard," Butler said.
Butler said Wednesday that Martz supports any efforts to improve rural Montana's economy, but limited state and federal money makes funding a four-lane project difficult. Saying rural Montana has been "betrayed" doesn't look at all the facts, he said.
Butler said Thursday the governor's office declines to comment further while public comment is being collected.
Vic Miller of Harlem said at Thursday night's meeting that most of the people he knows support a four-lane Highway 2. He went on the record at the Harlem meeting in support of 4 for 2.
Miller said no one knows if the Minneapolis-to-Seattle corridor will create an economic boom on the Hi-Line. The economic impact also wasn't known when the interstate system was created or when the railroad crossed the country in the 1800s, he said.
He said there is only one way the Hi-Line supporters for the project will get their wish: State and federal officials have to get behind the project and make it happen.
"It seems to me it boils down to a value judgment that elected officials have to make," Miller said. "We count. We want an investment in our region. We think it's time."
Richman said he thinks people need to know how bad and dangerous the highway is. He suggested all state legislators be required to live along Highway 2 for a year to persuade them to invest state money in the highway.
"How many people do we have to kill before we get the same courtesy they get in the southern part of the state?" he asked.
Mabel Egeland of Harlem said the income and property taxes paid in this part of the state over the years justifies the investment.
"We've paid for this road time and time again," she said.
The economic study done by ICF Consulting for the EIS and a study being completed by Cambridge Systematics to analyze the impact of reconfiguring highway systems across the state show that while a four-lane highway does benefit the economy more than a two-lane, the increased benefits don't justify the additional cost.
The estimated cost to widen the Havre-to-Fort Belknap highway to a modern two-lane with intermittent passing and turning lanes is $73.4 million, while an undivided four-lane would cost $94.5 million.
The Highway 2 Association hired civil engineer Hal Cooper of Cooper Consulting in Kirkland, Wash., to review the ICF study. Cooper found that if the entire corridor is analyzed and widening the highway is tied to an economic strategy, like building power plants and lines to transmit the power to the West Coast, it does create economic benefits that outweigh the cost. He said the only way to create economic development, especially on Indian reservations with high unemployment and increasing populations, is to build a four-lane Highway 2.
Dan Hodge of Cambridge Systematics said in an interview Wednesday that the Cambridge study didn't look at creating a multistate corridor. The Cambridge study looks at in-state results, he said.
Hodge said a multistate study, especially tied to a specific economic development plan as Cooper's report does, might have different results.
There are other factors involved, including is distance to markets. For long hauls, having a two-lane or a four-lane doesn't make a lot of difference, he said.
Cooper found that having a four-lane Highway 2 would create savings for truckers. The distance from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Seattle is about 65 miles shorter than using the interstate system. It also requires about 9,000 feet less in climbing because of gentler slopes and only having one mountain pass compared with three passes on the interstate, Cooper said Thursday in Fort Belknap.
Tim Carse of Harlem said he thinks the U.S. Department of Homeland Security should help pay to widen the highway since the highway runs near the U.S.-Canadian border. A wider highway would make protecting and monitoring the border easier.
"Making the highway better would certainly enhance their operations, especially in a time of crisis," Carse said.
Carse said that is similar to President Eisenhower's push to create the interstate system in the 1950s, which was for military, not economic, purposes.
Blaine County Commissioner Delores Plumage said people need to let their local elected officials know how they feel, so the elected officials can present a unified voice in support of the project. Organizations also should present their feelings, she said.
Plumage, a member of the Citizen Advisory Committee appointed for the project, said the CAC members submitted individual comments about the EIS. Now that she has talked to FHWA, she wants the committee to also submit a comment.
John Healy, transportation planner for the Fort Belknap Indian Community, read a letter from the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council supporting a four-lane Highway 2.
A four-lane "may revitalize economic activities along the Hi-Line and on the four Indian Reservations" near the highway.
Copies of the draft EIS can be viewed on the MDT Web site or at the Hill County Commissioners Office, the Havre-Hill County Library, the Montana State University-Northern library, the MDT office west of Havre, the Blaine County Commissioners office, the Blaine County Library, Sweet Memorial Nursing Home, Harlem City Hall, the Harlem Public Library, the Little Rockies Senior and Retirement Centerin Harlem, Fort Belknap College and the Fort Belknap Tribal Council offices in Fort Belknap.
Comments can be mailed to Karl Helvik, consultant project engineer, Montana Department of Transportation, 2701 Prospect Ave., P.O. Box 201001, Helena, MT 59260-1001, or made at the Web site.
On the Net: U.S. 2 Havre to Fort Belknap Project: www.ushwy2.com/
MDT Environmental Impact Statements and Environmental Assessments: www.mdt.state.mt.us/environmental/eis-ea/