By Tim Leeds
An improved U.S. Highway 2 could have two lanes, three lanes or be a divided four-lane highway.
One thing it won't be is a four-lane highway with painted stripes down the middle.
That surprised Highway 2 Association president Bob Sivertsen, who attended a public meeting on the proposed highway improvements Tuesday night.
Sivertsen told Montana Department of Transportation officials he thought that configuration was what was being planned.
Karl Helvik of MDT said four-lane highways without a divider are not considered safe and are not an option in Montana highway planning anymore.
The meeting was part of a second series of public sessions being held to collect comments for an environmental impact statement on a proposal to improve Highway 2 between Havre and Fort Belknap. After a presentation, those who attended broke up into groups to discuss possible solutions for some of the issues people have raised at previous sessions.
The different lane configurations presented by Steve Long of David Evans and Associates, the Denver firm conducting the study for MDT, included the current size of Highway 2, which is 24 to 28 feet of pavement with little or no shoulder, the modern requirement of a 40-foot-wide two-lane highway including shoulders, a two-lane highway with a third lane for turning, a four-lane divided highway or a five-lane highway, which includes a turning lane in the center.
Doug Wilmot of MDT said it would be possible to build a four-lane with a concrete divider between the opposing lanes.
But, Long said, a concrete barrier raises problems of its own, including impeding snow and ice removal.
"There is also a danger," he added. "You're putting a big piece of concrete next to traffic."
Another issue raised early at the meeting was economic development.
The walls of the Empire Builder Room at the Great Northern Inn, where the meeting was held, were covered with work David Evans has done since the project started about four months ago. The EIS is scheduled to take 30 months to complete.
The walls held five aerial photographs, most about 3 by 5 feet in size, of the highway in the project area, sheets listing concerns raised at the public meetings held in Havre, Chinook, Harlem and Fort Belknap in October, and diagrams showing the dimensions of highways with different numbers of lanes.
Pam Harada pointed out that economic development was not in the summary of concerns posted on the wall.
Joe Hart of David Evans said the highway's impact on economic development is part of the study. His firm has subcontracted that part of the project to Cambridge Systematics of Cambridge, Mass.
Cambridge Systematics also is conducting a study about the economic impacts of improving highways in general in Montana for MDT.
"We will consider economic impacts and we are. We just haven't gotten any details about that from the subconsultant," Hart said.
MDT specifically included economic impacts as one of the issues to be studied in the EIS. The issue has not been part of past environmental impact studies in Montana.
At the beginning of the meeting, Kathy Schultheis of David Evans presented a summary of concerns people have raised. They included the narrowness of the highway and its shoulders, problems for bicyclists and pedestrians, the dangers of passing and from drivers entering from access roads, conflicts between drivers and agricultural equipment, narrow bridges, and the distance people can see on the road.
Long talked about the width needed for different configurations of highways and the planning requirements of building a highway.
"My goal is to make you roadway engineers in 20 minutes before you go into your groups," he said. "It took me four or five years of college, but I think I can do it."
Long pointed out that many things have changed in the decades since Highway 2 was built. People are driving faster vehicles, and safety standards have changed. One new requirement is the clear zone, a gentle grade to the side of the highway providing some leeway if a driver accidentally or intentionally drives off of the pavement.
The clear zone on Highway 2 is extremely narrow and steep, he said. Modern highway planning would widen the zone and give it a gentle slope.
The study is the result of a bill passed by the 2001 Legislature that directs MDT to seek new congressional funding, with no state money required, to build a four-lane highway across the state on or near the route of Highway 2. Congress appropriated $2 million this year for Highway 2, which was allocated for the EIS.
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 requires conducting an EIS for any highway project that could impact the environment. The EIS will identify preferred alternatives for highway improvement, whichcould range from doing nothing to widening the road to as many as five lanes.
A 14-member committee, consisting of residents, business people and elected officials in the project area, was formed to help steer the EIS. Four members of the committee Sivertsen, Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette, Havre Mayor Bob Rice and Havre Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Debbie Vandeberg were at Tuesday's meeting.
The meetings continue today at Fort Belknap at noon and from 5:30 to 8 p.m. in the Chinook Motor Inn. The meetings move to Harlem at the Little Rockies Senior and Retirement Center Thursday from 5:30 to 8 p.m.
The consultants will meet Friday with the advisory committee.
On the net: Highway 2 EIS: www.ushwy2.com