By Ross Markman
Saturday morning, Havre resident Pam Harada pleaded with the Montana Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration to go ahead with a project to transform 40 miles of U.S. Highway 2 from two lanes to four. The MDT will announce the fate of the project on Friday.
"I think our area desperately needs four lanes," Harada told the MDT. "Do not throw away the Hi-Line."
Harada was joined by more than 40 people residents, state senators and county commissioners in a forum hosted by the MDT at the Triangle Telephone Cooperative in Havre. Most were there to support the construction of a four-lane highway on the 40-mile stretch from Havre to Harlem.
In July, the Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill No. 3, which directed the MDT to construct the four-lane highway across the state. The bill was initiated by Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, R-Glasgow, whose efforts helped spearhead the "4 for 2" campaign along the Hi-Line. The bill says that federal funding for the project should not require a state match. It also says the MDT "may not expend any resources on the project that would jeopardize any future highway projects."
The main focus is expanding all of Highway 2 in Montana to four lanes. The 667-mile project is expected to take 20 to 30 years, according to the Highway 2 Association.
Kitzenberg said the ultimate goal is to build an economic corridor across Montana.
"The future of one-fourth of Montana is being decided today," he added. "Basically, if we don't get a four-lane highway, we're going to cut the Hi-Line and one-fourth of Montana is going to die."
It's not just economic vitality that has Kitzenberg concerned. There are also the issues of safety and geographic parity, he said.
"One of the reasons I'm involved with politics is to change things. We in the rural areas get the two lanes and the highways that are more dangerous. To me, that's not right," Kitzenberg said. "And whatever happened to geographic fairness? North Dakota has it. Montana doesn't."
Congress has slated $2 million in support of SB No. 3, $1 million of which would go to conducting an environmental impact study on the effects of constructing the four-lane highway from Havre to Harlem. The study, according to Michael Johnson, Great Falls district administrator for the MDT, would take four to five months to get rolling and nearly three years to complete.
The MDT has ideas of its own, however, proposing to widen that section of Highway 2 to 40 feet, with two 12-foot driving lanes and two 8-foot shoulders, by 2005. Performing the EIS would delay that widening until at least 2008, according to MDT.
If the EIS is approved, any work being done on the 40-mile stretch would be forced to stop, due to a federal law that disallows construction overlap.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, told MDT representatives that making Highway 2 into four lanes should be tops on their to-do list.
"We need to put this forth as a high priority," said Tester, who cited safety as the principal issue concerning Highway 2.
"I don't drive that road a lot, but when I do, it's not a great experience," Tester added.
Most in attendance agreed.
"We're getting a little disgruntled here in northern Montana," said Bob Sivertsen, director of the Highway 2 Association. "Economic development in one part of Montana is going to help all of Montana. We think it's our turn and all we're asking for is a little support. We would like to think the state cares about us in the Highway 2 corridor."
Added Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette, "We should be able to do the EIS if it's feasible. I support the four-lane highway."
Bessette urged MDT to take into account the wants of the community.
"I would hope they would listen to the people. It's pretty clear what they want," she said. "From the people I've talked to, I think our communities need to move forward."
While most in attendance endorsed the EIS from Havre to Harlem, others offered another suggestion.
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, proposed that MDT conduct a test environmental impact study on a shorter stretch of road to avoid construction delays.
"I'm suggesting they do the EIS on the 10-mile span from Chinook to Zurich that's not scheduled for reconstruction. Then there's nothing to stop doing here," said Jergeson, who said he takes Highway 2 to work in Havre every day.
"That road is dangerous and too narrow," Jergeson added. "Some kind of improvement to it should not be delayed."
According to MDT director Dave Galt, although Jergeson's idea will not likely be followed, MDT will consider every avenue.
That, however, may not be enough for those in support of the four-lane project.
"I think we need the EIS. We're shortchanging ourselves if we only do the two lanes," Harada said following the forum. "The question is: Are people trying everything they can to get four lanes for the Hi-Line or are they trying to make the process as difficult as possible?"