By Tim Leeds
A committee established by Gov. Judy Martz in June agreed Monday to move forward with a study to determine the economic impact of improving Montana's highways.
"I was delighted people came from a long way," Dan Rice, chair of the committee, said today. "They came to work and we worked the whole day, which was marvelous. People really put their heads in gear and we got things done."
Martz established the steering committee for the study on June 27. At that time, Montana Department of Transportation director David Galt said the discussion about Senate Bill 3, a bill directing MDT to seek federal funding to widen U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes, showed a need to study the economic impact of highway expansion and improvement.
The study also conforms with House Joint Resolution 30, proposed by Rep. Bob Story, R-Park City, to encourage MDT to include economic development among the criteria for planning future highway projects.
"We're trying to include economic development in all planning for future projects," Galt said Tuesday.
Galt said the committee agreed Monday on the parameters the study should cover, and approved a request for proposals to start looking for a consultant to do the study. He said he hopes to have the consultant hired by February and the study completed by next fall, before the legislative session starts in 2003.
The study is not intended to address specific highway projects, Galt said. The consultant may have to use specific highway construction as an example, he said, but the idea is to examine the general economic impacts of highway improvements.
Rice, of Great Falls, is the transportation commissioner for the north-central Montana district, which includes the Havre area. He said the criteria used to select highway projects now are measurable items like accidents rates, pavement condition, amount of traffic and congestion, and bridge condition.
"This new criteria tends to be forward-looking, which is why it's so difficult to quantify," he said. "You're not talking about what has happened or exists but what will happen."
Galt said the economic criterion is a completely different way of considering highway construction.
"We are charting new territory," he said, "how to look at things in different ways."
The committee is likely to have several more meetings before the study is done, Rice said.