By Tim Leeds
Havre will have two groups discussing highway improvement studies in town Wednesday.
The advisory committee for the environmental impact study on U.S. Highway 2 between Havre and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation will have an initial meeting Wednesday morning, and consultants for the state's highway reconfiguration study will meet with Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., Wednesday afternoon, Montana Department of Transportation officials said today.
Mick Johnson, MDT's Great Falls district administrator, said the work of the advisory group for the Highway 2 EIS will be an important component of the study.
"We need to have someone to go to to tell us what alternatives to look at," he said.
The purpose of the EIS will be to examine several alternatives and recommend the best alternative, under the National Environmental Protection Act, Johnson said. The study will include an examination of economic impacts of the alternatives, which MDT hasn't included in most studies in the past, he said.
Other components of the study will be the impact on cultural, historical and environmental sites in the 48-mile stretch of highway, Johnson said.
"A lot of people believe the only alternative is a four-lane, but if those lanes negatively impact the environment, you probably won't see it," he said. "You could run into anything."
One standard alternative would be to do nothing to the highway, Johnson said. Others could be a widened two-lane highway, a two-lane highway with a turning lane, an undivided four-lane or a divided four-lane highway, or a five-lane highway, he said.
"I would hope all of us will go into there with an open mind and look at all of the alternatives," he said.
Work has already begun on the project, which has David Evans and Associates of Denver as the lead consultant, Johnson said. Preliminary aerial surveys of the project area have been done to give the consultants an idea of where the corridor will have to go.
The EIS is a direct result of a law passed by the 2001 Legislature directing MDT to seek congressional appropriations to widen Highway 2 to a four-lane highway across the state. No state money can be used for the project and, according to the law, the project cannot negatively impact other highway projects planned in the state.
The other study is also a result of the 2001 act, at least in part. After debates among lawmakers about whether highway improvements stimulate economic development, Gov. Judy Martz commissioned the study to determine the economic impact of highway development in Montana.
Dick Turner, chief of MDT's multimodal planning bureau, said preliminary work on the study has begun, and members of the consulting team are now contacting economic development personnel across the state to find business contacts in communities.
The EIS and the reconfiguration study are interrelated, and have some of the same consultants working on them, Turner said. One of the first items that will be introduced at the EIS advisory council meeting will be what is happening with the reconfiguration study, he said.
"Obviously, economic development is a big issue and several things are going on at the same time. We want to make sure all are coordinated and people are aware of them," Turner said.
Work on the reconfiguration study has also begun. The consultants have reviewed other studies across the nation to find the most effective and current methods to conduct studies of this type.
"They don't want to duplicate any efforts but they want to make sure they're using the best methodology for their efforts," Turner said.
The study will be specific to Montana and Montana industries, he said.
"We certainly wanted to be aware how similar studies have been done in other parts of the country, but we also want to be aware of how studies done in New York state may be based on a business environment totally different than Montana," Turner said.
The meeting of the EIS advisory board begins at the Duck Inn Olympic Room at 8:30 a.m. It is open to the public, although public comment will not be sought. The purpose of the meeting is to begin training the advisory board about the purpose and function of the EIS, Johnson said.