By Tim Leeds
Mick Johnson told Havre-area residents and business owners today that once a proposed highway project is completed, parking as Havre residents know it on First Street probably will not exist.
Johnson, administrator of the Montana Department of Transportation's district office in Great Falls, said a study of traffic for the three years ending in 2000 showed a very high percentage of Havre's accidents happen on First Street, and 45 percent of them are rear-end accidents. A total of 47 accidents were reported on First Street in that period.
"There seems to be a problem on U.S. 2 in Havre," Johnson said, adding that rear-end accidents can usually be reduced by installing a left-turn lane where the accidents occur. U.S. Highway 2 is called First Street as it runs through Havre.
Installing the lanes on First Street probably would eliminate some of the on-street parking but not all of it, he said.
Johnson, his engineering services supervisor, Bob Thomson, and Ross Gammon of the Havre MDT office were at a meeting this morning arranged by the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce to discuss the project with local citizens and business owners.
Jupe Compton, owner of the Palace Bar in the 200 block of First Street, said the rate of accidents MDT cited seems astonishing.
Johnson said not only is the rate high, but the severity is also high, causing major property damage.
Installing left-turn lanes usually requires reducing the on-street parking where the lane is. But the project is still in its very early stages, Johnson said, and many options are available.
Frank Derosa, who operates Havre Beneath the Streets and the Railroad Museum in the 100 block of Third Avenue, told Johnson that reducing parking could be a real problem from what he's seen of parking near the museum.
"From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., don't plan on finding parking there isn't any," he said.
A member of the audience asked Johnson how many of the accidents occur in the existing dedicated left-turn lanes on First Street at Fifth and Seventh avenues. When Johnson replied that he was unsure, the audience member told him that many of the accidents happen in those lanes. Putting in more left-turn lanes probably won't solve any problems, the audience member added.
Johnson said the business owners who will be impacted by the project have a lot of time to address concerns and let MDT know what they want done in the project. Thomson estimated that the first public meetings to discuss the suggestions for the project will begin in late spring or early summer.
MDT is in negotiations with a private consulting firm to conduct a study of the traffic and accidents in the project area, which basically extends from the eastern city limits to the western city limits, Johnson said. He said the study would include studies of the environmental, social and economic impacts of the project, and what the local desires are.
"I will assure you you have plenty of time to tell us how we can reduce the impact," Johnson said. " We are very willing to work with you on solutions. We are committed to doing the best we can for you."
He said some of the possible alternatives for installing turning lanes are using four lanes plus a turning lane, or two lanes plus a turning lane. Parking could be eliminated on only one side of the street to make space for a turning lane, and the parking lanes could be either 8 feet wide or 10 feet wide.
But, "If you've got an 8-foot parking lane and open your door, you better not have anybody coming," he said, because of the narrow width.
Johnson said a two-lane plus a turning lane actually handles more traffic and allows better traffic flow than having four lanes where traffic is held up by people trying to turn left.
Another concern, Johnson said, is the disruption of traffic and parking caused by the construction itself. He said there may need to be work on the utilities under the street, which would require additional digging and time. The project will probably require pouring a new concrete base, which needs at least a week to set before people can drive on it, he said.
Johnson said the project could either do one side of the street at a time, allowing some traffic, and take two years to complete, or MDT could do the entire street in a year. He said that, personally, he is a proponent of doing both sides at once in the shorter time.
He said whatever the final project plans look like, MDT will work with business owners affected. Signs will point to businesses cut off by construction , for instance.
Johnson said knowing the construction is coming can be a great benefit. Businesses can plan for the disruption, he said, giving an example of a restaurant that contracted to make sandwiches for the U.S. Forest Service while the construction blocked it.
Debbie Vandeberg, executive director of the Havre Area Chamber, said the Havre business owners could build a network with other cities, like Great Falls and Billings, that have been impacted by construction. She said Havre businesses could use that experience to find ways to reduce the problems here.
While the accidents on First Street may be the primary concern in designing the project, Johnson said, it is not the driving force behind it. Most of the street was built in 1952, he said, major work on it has not been done since 1979, and more work is now needed.
"The driving force is, we have to do something with that street," he said.
Russ DeVries, owner and operator of the Oxford Billiard Parlor in the 300 block of First Street, said afterward the meeting was very informative.
"Mr. Johnson's presentation opened my eyes a little bit to what the possibilities are," he said. "It's not a done deal and we could retain some parking."
DeVries said he likes the idea of two lanes with a turning lane, which might not only improve traffic and safety but allow MDT to do some landscaping with the project. But, he added, the business owners need to talk to the consulting company that is preparing the study.
"It might work out real good but we have to be diligent here," DeVries said.