By Ron VandenBoom and Karen Datko
The main sponsor of a bill directing the state Department of Transportation to widen U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes says the department is dragging its feet on the project.
Sen. Sam Kitzenberg said he's basing his comments on a draft of the department's written interpretation of his bill.
"As I read it, I guess the essence ... suggests to me that they are not making plans for a four-lane highway but to continue with a two-lane highway on Highway 2," Kitzenberg said this week.
The state Transportation Commission is meeting in Glasgow on Thursday morning to consider whether to adopt the draft document or change it. Kitzenberg said he's hoping that supporters of the four-lane plan attend to make their case. The meeting will begin at 8 a.m. in the Elks Club.
Kitzenberg said he will make a statement but wouldn't comment on what he will say. "I hate to play my ace before it's time," he said.
Transportation Department director David Galt said the department is not attempting to circumvent Kitzenberg's legislation, Senate Bill 3.
"I'm just trying to put this issue on the table and get some direction" from the Transportation Commission, he said.
SB 3 was introduced by Kitzenberg during the last session of the Montana Legislature. It requires the department to seek federal funding for what's known as the 4 for 2 project, and it requires that 4 for 2 be included in any future fiscal plans developed by the department. It says no state money can be used for the project and prohibits the department from expending any resources on the project that would jeopardize other future highway projects.
Kitzenberg said he's upset that the draft interpretation says that projects for Highway 2 in the department's five-year plan will continue to be for two lanes.
He also questioned another statement in the draft interpretation of the bill.
The draft notes that Level of Service C is the standard for Montana roads in the national highway system and will be applied to Highway 2. "In locations where the Level of Service C design standard can be achieved with a two-lane design, this standard will be constructed," the draft says. "In locations where four-lane design is needed to achieve the Level of Service C standard, a four-lane design will be constructed."
The draft notes that going to four-lane construction where it's not needed to meet the standard would jeopardize other highway projects, which Kitzenberg's bill prohibits.
Galt said Tuesday it appears the only way the state can widen most of Highway 2 to four lanes is if Congress allocates extra money for the project. Otherwise, the department would be violating the restrictions in Kitzenberg's bill.
He also said projects on the state's five-year construction list for Highway 2 have been in the works for some time and that the department made it clear to legislators during their last session that those plans would not be changed.
However, he said, under other legislation and a directive from Gov. Judy Martz, the Transportation Department is looking at making economic development a factor when it considers highway projects in the future.
Kitzenberg said he's aware the state has no money for the project right now.
"In fairness to them, they have to have extra money to do something," he said. "I'm worried that if and when they have that money, will they do something."
He questioned whether Galt has actively tried to lobby Montana's congressional delegation for federal money to widen Highway 2.
Transportation Department spokeswoman Lisa Vander Heiden said the department in April asked the delegation to try to secure $3 million to $5 million to start the four-lane project. So far, $1 million for a study and $1 million for construction have been included in a bill in the Senate. The full Senate has not yet taken up the measure and no similar request is pending in the U.S. House.