By Tim Leeds
The sponsor of Senate Bill 3 is unhappy with the Montana Department of Transportation's interpretation of his legislation to widen U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes, and has sent a letter to Gov. Judy Martz and the Montana Highway Commission telling them so.
"They keep throwing curve balls at us and making the highway close to an impossibility," state Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, R-Glasgow, said this week. He said the Legislative Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee's interpretation of SB3, which the committee issued to guide MDT, effectively kills the bill.
Lisa Vander Heiden, MDT public information officer, said the department is not working to circumvent the bill, and will begin the project once Congress appropriates money for it.
"What the question has been all along is what the bill means, and we needed some interpretation from the committee," she added.
The bill directs MDT to construct a four-lane highway generally along the present route of U.S. Highway 2 but says it cannot use any state money for the project or use federal money if doing so would jeopardize any other road projects in Montana. That essentially means the road won't be widened until the U.S. Congress appropriates money earmarked for the project.
Kitzenberg said MDT director Dave Galt and Great Falls district administrator Mick Johnson came to a meeting of the Havre City Council on Sept. 10 and voiced skepticism about the benefits of widening Highway 2 to four lanes. The council approved supporting SB 3 at that meeting, and passed a resolution stating so on Oct. 1.
Kitzenberg said Galt and Johnson used scare tactics with the Havre City Council. "(Johnson) started out saying, I can't do this, I can't do that,'" he said. " Why is an engineer debating the plan after it's been passed?"
Johnson said he wanted to present both sides of the issue to the council. He can build the four-lane, and he can build a safe two-lane, he added.
"I frankly think (the City Council) made the right decision," Johnson said. "They have to support the four-lane."
At a meeting of the Legislature's Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee in Helena later, Kitzenberg said, Galt, deputy director Jim Currie and Pat Saindon, administrator of MDT's Rail, Transit and Planning Division, convinced the committee to draft an interpretation of SB3 similar to MDT's interpretation.
Kitzenberg had told the state Highway Commission on Aug. 1 that that interpretation was unacceptable. The commission asked Kitzenberg and Galt to work out a compromise. Kitzenberg said he thought they were doing that before the department appeared before the interim legislative committee on Sept. 13-14.
Kitzenberg said he wasn't notified of MDT's meeting with the interim committee.
"I think it's dirty pool," he said. " Does an agency have the right to come in without notifying all parties, especially without notifying the author of the bill? (It) wasn't announced on the agenda, the author of the bill was not notified, they didn't have both sides."
Kitzenberg's letter to Martz and the Highway Commission states that MDT has bypassed the voices of citizens on the Hi-Line by taking the issue to the committee without telling him.
Galt said the chair of the committee, Rep. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula, brought up the issue and appointed a subcommittee to draft an interpretation on Sept. 13. Galt provided them with information, including all public information MDT had and all correspondence it had with Kitzenberg on the subject, he said.
Kitzenberg said two provisions in the committee's interpretation allow MDT to circumvent funding for the highway four-lane project. One provision states that if the MDT doesn't receive enough funds to complete projects to widen Highway 2, the money may be used to expand bridge projects to accommodate a four-lane highway. Another states that unless enough money is received to complete the "entire" four-lane project, future projects will be planned according to existing MDT guidelines.
Kitzenberg said he thinks those provisions allow MDT to take money appropriated for widening U.S. 2 and use it for other projects. The provisions could be interpreted to mean that Congress has to appropriate enough money to widen all of Highway 2 before MDT will start work, he added.
Galt said that's not the case. The language about the "entire" project refers to specific, defined projects on Highway 2, he said. He added that MDT has to designate a use for money that's been appropriated if it's not enough to complete a project or face the possibility of having to return it to the federal government.
"If you get a million dollars, the question is what do you use it for, what do you do with it," Galt said. "You don't want to send it back."
Lee Heiman, legislative attorney for the interim committee, said the provisions about adequate funding were put in the interpretation to keep piecemeal work from being done on the highway.
"If they don't get enough money to build a project then the money shouldn't be used for 200 yards of four-lane road," he said.
Heiman added that the interpretation from the committee is just guidance, and SB3 itself is the regulating factor for widening U.S. 2.
"The law itself binds everybody," he said.
MDT will follow congressional orders for how to use money appropriated to widen Highway 2, Vander Heiden said.
"Whatever they give us for guidelines is what we will do," she said.
Vander Heiden added that the department is working with the Montana congressional delegation to get money to convert Highway 2 to a four-lane.
"If we get the money and Congress wants us to do it, we will do it," she said.