By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - A Glasgow lawmaker pushing for expansion of U.S. Highway 2 as a means of sparking economic growth across the Hi-Line on Tuesday gave up his latest attempt to transform the road into a four-lane highway.
Republican Sen. Sam Kitzenberg said state transportation officials persuaded him his measure forbidding the state from building anything but a four-lane road along the route would prevent a host of projects already planned for the highway.
"It would shut everything down," including construction work needed to make the aging two-lane highway safer, he said.
Despite abandoning his new effort, Kitzenberg said he is more optimistic than he was before because new Gov. Brian Schweitzer and his newly appointed Transportation Department director, Jim Lynch, support the idea of someday carving a four-lane U.S. 2 across northern Montana.
"The chances have gotten better," he said, referring to his frustration with opposition from the previous administration of Gov. Judy Martz and her transportation director, Dave Galt.
Lynch said he is willing to talk with federal highway officials about reconsidering their decision last year to approve only a two-lane highway with turning lanes for a 45-mile stretch of the highway between Havre and Fort Belknap.
Kitzenberg started leading the charge for a four-lane highway in the 2001 Legislature when he persuaded legislators to pass a bill requiring construction of a four-lane U.S. 2, but only if federal money could be found that would not affect other highway projects in the state.
An environmental study last fall favored a less-expensive expanded two-lane option, prompting Kitzenberg to introduce a bill this year that would stop any projects on the highway that did not involve four lanes.
Lynch said his department has about $200 million worth of U.S. 2 work in various stages of planning, and many of those are needed for safety reasons. The projects are scheduled over the next four years.
"We needed that construction to continue," he said.
Kitzenberg said he realizes he cannot be unreasonable and pursue legislation that would halt all those projects.
As a concession to Kitzenberg, Lynch said his agency, as part of the planned projects along the route, would try to purchase additional rights of way to someday widen the highway to four lanes. The success of that effort will depend on landowners' willingness to sell and the price, he said.
He said the Schweitzer administration agrees that a four-lane highway would help encourage economic development along the Hi-Line, particularly in eastern Montana where conditions are worst.
"There's some validity in seeing four lanes as a catalyst for economic development," Lynch said.
Kitzenberg said his greatest concern is that the decision to proceed with two-lane construction projects in Montana will discourage North Dakota officials from continuing with plans to improve its portion of U.S. 2 into four lanes. He said he is worried that state will choose to link up its four-lane highway with Interstate 94 that crosses southern Montana.
The bill is Senate Bill 306.