By Ron VandenBoom
State Sen. Sam Kitzenberg of Glasgow returned from the weekend economic summit in Great Falls enthusiastic about the chances of converting Highway 2 into a four-lane economic corridor along the northern tier of Montana.
"I talked to all three of our congressional delegation and was introduced to most of their staff," Kitzenberg said today.
Kitzenberg said U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns sounded "very positive" about it, and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg committed to investigating the possibility of a "demonstration project" along Highway 2, Kitzenberg said.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, Kitzenberg said, has been an ardent supporter of the project and has submitted a request for a $26 million federal appropriation to begin construction on the project.
The four-lane highway project, known as 4 for 2, was pushed through the last session of the state Legislature with almost unanimous support from Hi-Line communities that consider it necessary for their economic survival.
Kitzenberg said he attended a session about transportation at the summit and was able to get in what he said were a few points about 4 for 2.
The first point was one of geographical fairness, he said. Traditional thinking has placed most of the emphasis on road construction in the more populated areas of the state.
Kitzenberg said his second point was that the use of a Department of Transportation formula that sends most highway funds to the more heavily populated areas does not balance with the economic needs of areas like the Hi-Line.
The third point was that the state should not ignore the economic corridors that are being built in neighboring states.
"These corridors should become part of the program so that they don't stop when they get to the Montana border," Kitzenberg said.
Dave Galt, director of the state Department of Transportation, said Friday that he has submitted the 4 for 2 funding request to the federal government, but because of the price tag, he placed it at the bottom of his list.
The cost of the project is estimated at $1.2 billion. No state funds are to be used on construction of the project under the Senate Bill 3, the bill that authorized the transportation to seek federal funding for the project.
SB 3 also orders the department to begin conducting studies on 4 for 2.
Galt said most of the provisions of SB 3 have been included in the department's most recent long-range road construction plan and the bill really didn't change anything.
Gov. Judy Martz last week ordered Galt to conduct a highway study examining the economic impact of reconfiguring all of the state's two-lane highways. Martz said, in announcing the order, "The development of economic corridors was a critical component of a visionary, long-term economic stimulus effort."
Galt said the need for the study became apparent during the 2001 legislative session.
"In light of Senate Bill 3 requiring MDT to plan for a four-lane highway generally along U.S. Highway 2 and because of growing interest in construction of a four-lane route between Billings and Great Falls the governor and I have been discussing the most appropriate means of evaluating potential impact of highway expansion in the state," Galt said.
Galt will form a committee to conduct the study and determine what reconfiguarations would provide the greatest economic impact.
Even though the study will look into the possible expansion of other two-lane roads, Galt said, it won't detract from the Highway 2 prooject. He said he thinks the study will complement all highway projects and described it as "the icing on the cake" of the overall department plan.
Kitzenberg is less enthusiastic about the MDT plan and the fact that funding for the project is at the bottom of the department' request list for federal funding.
"Galt has, in fact, been an opponent of 4 for 2, " Kitzenberg said, adding that he is "very disappointed" with the transportation department.
"It amazes me," he said. "When you get a law through the Legislature you should be doing it not finding ways not to do it."
Kitzenberg said he does not think it is the role of engineers to debate the issue.
"They work for the Legislature and the people of Montana," he said.
Kitzenberg will be holding a Highway 2 Association organizational meeting Wednesday at the fairgrounds in Glasgow. He said he has already collected the $10,000 he believes is needed to revive the association and plans to increase the number of 4 for 2 highway signs from 50 to 150.