By Ron VandenBoom
Sen. Sam Kitzenberg appeared before the House Transportation Committee Monday wearing a yellow construction helmet adorned with stickers promoting SB-3 a bill that would allow for the creation of a four-lane highway along U.S. Highway 2.
It was a ploy that would lead to a 17-2 victory for Kitzenberg's bill, but not without first hitting a few speed bumps in the form of amendments.
"This is more than a road," Kitzenberg told the committee. "It's a hope, it's a dream about future economic development."
A packed house of proponents from Glasgow to Cut Bank also appeared before the committee to lend their support for the bill.
The bill would direct the Montana Department of Transportation (DOT) to construct a four-lane highway between the North Dakota border and Idaho border. It also directs (DOT) to seek federal funding for the project and stipulates that DOT not expend any funds on the project that would jeopardize any future highway projects.
"This highway will pave the way for trade into the 21st century," Kitzenberg told the committee.
Nine supporters of the bill testified before the committee concentrating their message on issues of economic development and safety.
"For five or six years now we've been hearing a lot about economic development," said Robert Sivertsen, a Chinook area rancher and former legislator. "We're here today to provide you with just one of those solutions to economic development.
Sivertsen told the committee the Hi-Line has, in many ways, helped the rest of the state and "all we're asking now is to be given the opportunity to be able to help ourselves. "
He went on to tell the committee that if farmers are to develop value added products they need to be able to attract business that can manufacture value added goods.
"And the only way we can talk anyone into coming in and developing value added industry is with a quality highway system," he said.
Blaine County Commis-sioner Art Kleinjan, speaking on behalf of Bear Paw Development Corporation, echoed Sivertsen's words, telling the committee he wished he could tell them the number of businesses Bear Paw Development had interviewed over the years that decided not to come to the Hi-Line because of the roads.
But Kleinjan concentrated most of his remarks on safety issues associated with Highway 2 telling them he hoped no member of the committee ever has to take a 18-wheeler on Highway 2 and have to make a right-hand turn.
"It isn't a lot of fun, it's dangerous," he said, adding that truckers must pull from the right-hand lane into the left in order to make the turn.
Kleinjan brought a slight chuckle from the committee when he told them the highway department does a wonderful job, "But you can only put so many patches on an old pair of Levis."
Other testimony was presented by supporters from Cut Bank, Wolf Point, Glasgow, and Chester. Sen. Glenn Roush, D. Cut Bank, also testified for the bill.
Only one opponent representing the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce testified against the bill expressing concerns that funds would be spent on Highway 2 at the expense of Highway 93 that runs through Kalispell.
Kitzenberg assured the committee that no funds would be diverted from any other highway project in favor of Highway 2. "There's no competition here," he said.
In his concluding remarks, Kitzenberg said the Hi-Line should not be considered the back 40.
"We are an integral part of Montana and we don't want to be programmed out of our future," he said. "I'm hoping that you'll treat this bill with tender loving care. Because it represents to us a future, a vision, and some hope."
Kitzenberg did not get everything he wanted from the committee, but he emerged from the hearing 90 minutes later satisfied with the result.
One of the amendments requires notice of the project be given to the Salish Kootenai Indians on the Flathead Indian Reservation and the other requires the word "generally" be added to the description of the Highway 2 route.
Kitzenberg described the amendments as "minor." The bill now has to be approved by both the House and the Senate as amended.