A common thread ran through all comments at the panel discussion about widening U.S. Highway 2 Wednesday the highway definitely needs to be improved.
"There's no doubt in my mind work needs to be done," said Dave Galt, director of the Montana Department of Transportation. Galt was responding to a comment about the dangers, and lives lost, because Highway 2 is so narrow between Havre and Gildford.
Gov. Judy Martz held the discussion while in Havre for her Capital for a Day program. She said in October she would hold a meeting on the Hi-Line to clear up "misinformation" about Senate Bill 3, authored by state Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, R-Glasgow. SB3 directs MDT to seek federal funding to widen Highway 2 to four lanes. It also says no state money can be used for the project and that spending on the project can't come at the detriment to other highway projects.
Martz announced the meeting after Kitzenberg accused MDT of pushing an interpretation of the bill that would gut it.
The panel included state legislators, members of the Montana Highway Commission and representatives of U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns. State Senate President Tom Beck, R-Deer Lodge, moderated the discussion. Most of the comments were made by panel members and former or current legislators in the audience.
In his opening remarks, Galt said he believes that widening the highway to four lanes is a good idea but Montana needs help to do it. The state receives about $260 million a year in federal highway money. The widening is estimated to cost $1.2 billion.
Kitzenberg said he agrees that widening Highway 2 should not be done at the expense of other highway work. But, he said, the legislative Interim Revenue and Transportation Committee's interpretation of the bill allows MDT to move money appropriated by Congress for the project for other things.
Kitzenberg said there is $2 million for Highway 2 in a U.S. Senate appropriations bill moving through Congress, but MDT might say it's not enough to complete any projects and use it elsewhere.
For example, Kitzenberg said, the project requires an environmental impact statement, which takes about three years to complete. If Congress doesn't fully fund it, it could be delayed, meaning the start of construction will be at least six years in the future instead of three, he said.
Members of the state Highway Commission said they haven't heard of any opposition to the widening project within the transportation department.
"The department is definitely charged to develop the four-lane," Commissioner Nancy Espy said. "Everyone wants to make it happen. Let's work together to make it happen."
Commissioner Dan Rice also said the project has overwhelming support. But he added that the state has to keep maintaining all of its roads and can't allocate all of its resources to Highway 2.
"I think this issue can get characterized inappropriately," he said. " We haven't had any opposition."
Other officials warned that the actual widening will be years in the future.
Janice Brown of the Federal Highway Administration said a project of this magnitude needs planning, EIS studies and feasibility studies.
"Then to bite off pieces you can chew, choose projects you could actually build," she said, "this is a long process and it takes time."
She added that MDT needs to continue with short-term needs in the state while it works to widen Highway 2.
Brad Bekkedahl, a city commissioner in Williston, N.D., and president of the association to widen Highway 2 in North Dakota, said the project first started in North Dakota in the 1970s and stalled after the the widening reached Minot in 1986. After being revived in the 1990s, it took three years to build consensus to complete it. The EIS for that final phase will enter a 60-day public comment period in December, he said.
"My message to you here today is it's a long process," he said. " I guess what I'm telling you is don't quit now."
Rep. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula and a member of the interim transportation committee, said he and Beck drove the road between Havre and Chinook Wednesday and definitely saw a need for improvement. He added that he is unsure traffic justified four lanes.
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, was in the audience and told Beck and Erickson, to applause from the audience, that they should try driving it just before or after work.
John Brenden, a former state senator from Scobey, said northern Montana needs good transportation and Highway 2 doesn't provide it.
"When you come in from Harlem to Havre, that's the biggest piece of schlock I've ever seen for a highway," he said.
Brenden also responded to comments from Erickson and Rep. Bob Story, R-Park City, that the Legislature should stay out of highway funding and avoid politicizing the process. The highway department has always been politicized, Brenden said, or there wouldn't be an interstate running through Butte.
Kitzenberg, who is president of Montana's Highway 2 Association, and Bekkedahl will be in Havre Saturday for the first annual meeting of the association. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. at the Student Union Building at Montana State University-Northern.
Martz, the Highway Commission and the congressional delegation have been invited to the meeting.