By Tim Leeds
Tempers remained cool despite contrary opinions during a meeting Tuesday about work planned for First Street. One theme remained constant whatever happens to the street, downtown business owners don't want to lose their parking spots.
"Some businesses may cease to exist," said Jupe Compton, owner of the Palace Bar in the 200 block of First Street.
John Pavsek, Brad Peterson and Craig Nowak of Morrison Maierle Inc., the consulting firm conducting an environmental assessment for the project, and Montana Department of Transportation personnel addressed a packed community room at the Hill County Electric/Triangle Telephone Cooperative building. More than 50 people attended the public meeting about the project, which will completely rebuild U.S. Highway 2 where it passes through Havre as First Street.
The project, set to begin in 2006 or 2007, will run from the west edge of Havre near the water treatment plant at Ninth Avenue West to 24th Avenue, near the old Kmart building. The project includes reconstructing the pavement, changing signs and traffic signals as necessary, new striping of lanes and improved drainage.
The consultants and Mick Johnson, Great Falls district administrator for MDT, repeatedly stressed that they need to know what people want to see for the construction plan and for the finished street.
"Whatever you want that look to be, you should let us know," Johnson said.
"We don't want to design this in a black box," Pavsek said.
Some of the questions raised by the consultants were whether Havreites would prefer a longer duration of construction with less impact or a shorter construction period with a more intense impact. They want to know the number of lanes people would prefer to see, which areas raise special concerns about accidents or traffic signals, and which areas have drainage problems.
Many at the meeting said they worried that construction could prevent access to businesses on the north side of First Street.
Ken Myers, owner of Havre Distributors, said his business normally receives a couple of tractor-trailers delivering goods a week, and has maybe 10 delivery trucks entering or leaving the business every day. If First Street access is shut down, and he can't get permission to cross Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway property to the north, his business would be effectively shut down, he said.
Johnson said that is a major concern. Several businesses on the north side of the street are completely landlocked, he said. He doesn't know how to solve that problem, he added.
Trying to find that solution will be part of the study, Pavsek said.
"The plan is, whatever we do, to provide access to the businesses," he said.
People at the meeting disagreed about how many lanes the street should have.
Compton said a three-lane configuration has been discussed, with one lane in each direction and a continuous center turning lane, which would preserve on-street parking. He asked if he could be reassured that considering that would be one of Morrison Maierle's priorities.
"It is. I can guarantee that," Pavsek said. "The highway department has given us our marching orders that we have to consider that."
But Bill Kaufman of Havre said he doesn't think that configuration is a good idea.
"I can't imagine going back to a two-lane, even with a third lane," he said.
When he used to patch the street before it was made into a four-lane, people used to drive on the sidewalk to get around him, Kaufman said.
Chris Caven, owner of Shamrocks Bar and Casino, echoed Compton's concern about on-street parking. Downtown Havre has lost a significant amount of parking in the last year, he said.
Pam Harada of the Havre Job Service said the study should consider alternatives to eliminating parking. Left-turn arrows at traffic signals, better traffic control and restricting left turns during business hours are some possibilities, she said.
Johnson said one possibility to keep parking on First Street would be to use narrower traffic lanes and parking.
"Have you ever driven down First Street with a semi driving on it with a full load of round bales?" Rick Harada of Havre asked. "I don't think you really want to narrow it."
The project to rebuild 10th Avenue South in Great Falls used narrower, 11-foot lanes, which have not created any problems, Johnson said.
Officials noted that in addition to a comprehensive traffic and accident study, the environmental assessment will include a comprehensive parking study.
Pavsek said the studies should help determine the impact on businesses and traffic of both the construction and the final configuration of the highway.
"We hope to do a really comprehensive traffic study and look at all of this," he said.
A study done for the city in the 1990s showed that Havre had more parking than most cities its size. However, downtown lost about 13 parking spots in a private lot with the construction of the Town Square park.
Possibilities for how the construction would proceed include doing one side of the street at a time and keeping two-way traffic on the other side, or doing entire sections of the street at a time and detouring traffic, Pavsek said. One would would lessen the impact but take longer; the other would increase the impact but shorten the duration.
Another question is whether to use concrete or asphalt to construct the highway, Pavsek said. Concrete would last longer, but shut down traffic longer during construction.
People at the meeting raised concerns that the project will take a long time either way. Replacing the storm drains and the city of Havre's plans to replace water mains, and possibly the sewer mains if funds are available, will slow the project down and increase its impact on traffic and businesses, several people said.
Nowak said the drainage study will have two parts. A standard study of the drainage on the street and a half block on either side will be conducted. Another study will include the entire area that drains onto First Street, he said.
"It's going to be expanded to include most of the city of Havre," he said.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice and Dave Peterson, director of public works, said one problem is that BNSF has apparently reduced the size of culverts used for storm drainage on its property. Rice said one of two pipes that start near McDonald's has been completely blocked off.
Johnson said MDT would enter agreements with the railroad to make sure drainage is properly constructed and maintained.
Pam Harada and Tyler Smith raised concerns about detouring traffic onto Second Street.
"I drive down Second Street every day; I live on it. It's kind of rough," Smith said.
Pavsek said any preliminary repairs on Second needed before construction would be part of the plan, and any traffic signals or other changes would also be part of the plan, as would repairing the street after construction.
"It has to meet all safety requirements," he said.
The project also will include landscaping and sidewalk repair as necessary. Pavsek said more information about landscaping and beautification will be available at the next scheduled public meeting.
The schedule for the study is to have preliminary design, with studies starting today, through July. A second public meeting will be held then, with a preliminary plan presented in September 2004. Any utility agreements or rights of way purchases will be completed by October 2005, although Pavsek said he doesn't anticipate needing any purchase of right of way.
Much more detailed information with results of studies will be available at the July meeting, Pavsek said.
"The next meeting could be a little contentious," he said.
Craig Erickson of Bear Paw Development Corp. said he hopes people look at the opportunities rather than differences in opinion during the study process.
"The project also represents an awesome opportunity to address some challenges the community has," he said. "I hope some people will keep that in mind when discussions get heated."
Pavsek said more public meetings will be scheduled as needed, and comments will still be taken after the July meeting, and even after the September 2004 meeting.
"It's not like we close the door and go to work on the project," he said.
The consultants would like to receive the first round of written public comments by Jan. 6. Johnson said people can send them to him at the Great Falls office at P.O. Box 1359, Great Falls, MT 59403-1359, or take them to the Havre office to be relayed to him.
MDT is considering building a Web page with information about the project, possibly with links from both the MDT home page and the Morrison Maierle page.