By Tim Leeds
One thing became clear at the Wheeler Center roundtable in Great Falls Tuesday there probably is a relationship between highway improvements and increased economic development, but no one really knows what that relationship is.
Knowledge about the process and effects of highway construction is very limited, said Gordon Brittan, executive director of the Wheeler Center.
"There seems to be an inverse relationship between the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on highways in Montana and knowledge about it," he said.
The center, located at Montana State University-Bozeman, is a nonpartisan organization named for the late Burton K. Wheeler, U.S. senator from Montana from 1923 to 1947. The Wheeler Center held a roundtable discussion in Great Falls to investigate what impact highway construction has on economic development. The proposal to widen U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes through Montana was the case study at the conference.
More than 50 people attended, including state legislators, representatives of city and county governments and Chambers of Commerce and economic development groups. A statement written by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus was read and a videotaped statement by Sen. Conrad Burns was shown at the event.
The speaker at the roundtable's luncheon was Robert Gorman, transportation planner for the Federal Highway Administration. He said there are many studies that show the economy improves in areas where highway improvements are made, but virtually all of those studies are flawed because they fail to take other factors into account.
Some current studies show promise of building an accurate model to determine how much highways impact the economy, Gorman said.
Brad Bekkedahl is a dentist from Williston, N.D., who has spearheaded an effort to finish widening Highway 2 to four lanes through the last 100 miles of that state. History shows what impact highway improvements have, he said.
Williston and Dickinson, N.D. were very similar in size and economic strength in 1950, Bekkedahl said. Then an interstate was built through Dickinson in 1958.
Since then, Bekkedahl said, the population has grown 24 percent, manufacturing employment has gone up 132 percent and the number of utility and transportation jobs has jumped 122 percent in Dickinson. In Williston, the population has dropped 38 percent, manufacturing employment is down 31 percent, and utility and transportation jobs are down 10 percent.
"How do you look at these numbers and say roads don't matter?" Bekkedahl asked. "Roads do matter."
But speakers said improving a highway won't guarantee success. Ray Kuntz is chairman and chief executive officer of Watkins-Shepard Trucking, a firm based in Helena that employs about 700 truckers and hauls freight across the country.
"I'm going to say what I think and not what you want to hear," he said.
Most routes to or from Seattle would actually be shorter using the interstate system than using Highway 2, Kuntz said. That, along with the inclement weather in northern Montana, means probably no more than 5 percent of his company's shipping would use Highway 2 even if it had four lanes, he said.
Kuntz said improving one road would definitely increase trucking. The route between Billings and Great Falls would complete a shipping corridor between Mexico and Canada, he said.
But improving safety is crucial, Kuntz said. The insurance premiums truckers have to pay are increasing astronomically, and improving roads and better educating the driving public would help.
Kuntz said that when he received the bill for his family's personal auto insurance, he called the insurance company and asked if it really was an insurance company.
"I thought it was a car dealership because you guys billed me for a car and all I wanted was insurance," he said he told the company.
Gorman said work other than highway improvements is needed for success.
"Transportation is important but usually not enough," he said.
Other important factors needed to attract businesses include proximity to markets and raw materials, a qualified labor source and what the tax rates are, Gorman said.
Bekkedahl emphasized that quality transportation does have to exist.
"It won't solve all problems, but it is a part of the puzzle," he said.
State Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, R-Glasgow, authored a bill directing the Montana Department of Transportation to seek congressional funding to widen Highway 2 to four lanes. He said a community has to have access to a four-lane highway before most businesses will even consider locating in them.
"The lack of transportation has been a slow death for many communities. It's like a bleeding artery," he said.
Bekkedahl cited analysis about what economic improvements a community could have if it improved transportation, and what it could lose if it didn't.
"There are costs to not doing things," he said.
Having access to a four-lane highway puts towns in a position to attract businesses, Kitzenberg said.
"It makes you a contender," he said.
State Rep. Frank Smith, D-Poplar, said he has evidence that having a four-lane does matter. Smith said a business moved from Wolf Point to Laurel because it couldn't hit the $2 million revenue mark on a two-lane highway. In the first year on the four-lane, it hit $2 million, all because of the interstate, Smith said the business told him.
Another issue is safety. Improving the highway will be worth it if it saves lives, Kitzenberg said. He said the number of accidents and deaths on Highway 2 is completely out of proportion for the region's population and the highway's use.
Improvements on the highway has already saved a life, he said. MDT built a guard rail on a curve near Nashua where four people, including one of Kitzenberg's students at Glasgow High School, had died. Since then, one driver has hit the guard rail, and stayed on the road and survived, he said.
MDT director Dave Galt said there are other problems affecting the widening Highway 2 besides waiting for Congress to appropriate the $1.2 billion needed for the entire project. It will be extremely difficult to widen the highway west of Browning because of the geography of the Rocky Mountains and the 20 miles the highway is in or borders Glacier National Park.
In an interview, Kitzenberg said that was why the language of his bill was amended to say "generally along the present route of U.S. Highway 2."
"We didn't feel like we had the time or patience to go through the hoops" to widen the highway in the park, he said.
Galt said the location makes that a moot point. If the route is planned away from Glacier National Park, it would go into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and the same problems would arise.
Brittan said most of the answers to the roundtable questions seemed to be "yes, but " answers.
There is a relationship between highway construction and economic development, but how much of a relationship there is is unsure, Brittan said. Montana, which identified $3 billion worth of needed highway work statewide last year and had $230 million to spend, needs to fix problems, but new work is also needed. Money spent on making Highway 2 a four-lane highway might be more profitably spent somewhere else, but something needs to be done to help the area, he added.
"It's a very, very bad situation on the Hi-Line," he said. "Without transportation, nothing is going to move, literally or figuratively."