By BECKY BOHRER
Associated Press Writer
RED LODGE - Repairing stretches of the scenic Beartooth Highway damaged or destroyed by mudslides will cost about $20 million, with no estimate on when the work might be completed, officials told a town meeting Tuesday.
The highway is a route to Yellowstone National Park's northeast entrance that winds over 10,940-foot Beartooth Pass. The late journalist Charles Kuralt called it ''the most beautiful roadway in America.''
But it is more than the scenery to merchants in Red Lodge, who rely on the business of tourists traveling the highway each summer. It is closed by snow for half the year.
Mudslides caused by heavy rains and snowmelt earlier this month buried portions of U.S. 212, while rushing water undercut the pavement in other areas, said Charity Watt Levis, a spokeswoman for the Montana Department of Transportation.
Transportation Director Jim Lynch said about a 20-mile section of road is affected, with 13 areas impacted by slides, in some cases piled with tons of material. He said there are some areas where the road is damaged and others in which it is destroyed.
''We almost need to build our way into the project,'' Lynch said.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., estimated repairs would cost $20 million, but he told the meeting he was confident that federal emergency highway money would be available for the project.
''All in all, it's very significant,'' he told dozens of people at a community meeting in this southern Montana tourist town after viewing the damage from a helicopter with Lynch and other officials.
Officials could not say when work can begin or how soon it can be completed, though Lynch stopped short of saying the highway would be closed all this year.
Town leaders are upbeat about the summer travel season now beginning.
Bookings for the summer remain strong, said Denise Parsons, executive director of the Red Lodge Area Chamber of Commerce.
''This is going to be critical that we get the information out to everyone,'' she said, adding that local business leaders are working with state and regional travel officials to spread the word about what Red Lodge has to offer and ways to get to and from the town.
Officials also are touting the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, which skirts east and then south through Wyoming, around the damaged area. They say it is also a beautiful drive, and travel time to Yellowstone is comparable to that on the Beartooth Highway.
It's clear to local business leaders that the road will not open any time soon, and likely not this summer, said Tom Kuntz, owner of Red Lodge Pizza Co. ''We understand that, but we really believe we have a lot to offer. We believe people will still come here.''
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