By Ross Markman
The commissioners of Hill and Blaine counties want you.
Your opinion, that is.
The six commissioners have until Monday to decide if they want the Montana Department of Transportation to conduct a $1.8 million study on a 40-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 2 between Havre and Harlem or to proceed with the development of scheduled construction projects that would widen and improve Highway 2 between Havre and Harlem over the next six years.
The environmental impact study would be the first step in converting the two-lane Highway 2 into a four-lane road, while the other projects would widen Highway 2 to 40 feet, with two 12-foot driving lanes and two 8-foot shoulders, at a cost of approximately $32 million.
The commissioners don't want to make the decision alone.
With the help of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, the commissioners are asking for public comment regarding the future of Highway 2.
The deadline to voice your opinion is Monday.
"The commissioners need some kind of input from the citizens. Do they give the green flag to go ahead with the EIS or do we do the programmed work?" said Debbie Vandeberg, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.
The commissioners are undecided.
"Basically, I think we're looking for the opinions of people out there. That's why we've asked the Chamber to assist us in gathering opinions. It's very important. We need to hear from those individuals," said Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette.
Bessette said the commissioners will relay the results of the poll to the director of the Highway 2 Association, Bob Sivertsen, who will then pass them on to the MDT.
The MDT announced 1 weeks ago that the deadline to apply for the money appropriated for the EIS had been extended to Wednesday. If the EIS is approved, any work being done on that section of Highway 2 would be forced to stop, due to a federal law that disallows construction overlap.
Blaine County Commissioner Art Kleinjan said community input is crucial to the future of Highway 2.
"I think (the public's opinion) is the key to it. I feel strongly about having it," Kleinjan said.
"I think (improving Highway 2) is of the utmost importance. I would dearly love to see the four-lane road, but whatever is done, there's some improvement needed," he said.
The push to expand Highway 2 to four lanes was initiated by Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, R-Glasglow, spearheading the "4 for 2" campaign along the Hi-Line.
The last Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill 3, which directed the MDT to construct the four-lane highway. The bill says that federal funding for the project should not require a state match and that the MDT "may not expend any resources on the project that would jeopardize any future highway projects."
Kitzenberg has said the goal of making Highway 2 four lanes is to establish geographic fairness, increase safety and to establish the Hi-Line as an economic corridor.
Kleinjan agreed that improvements to Highway 2 could be instrumental in revitalizing the Hi-Line.
"I don't think there's anything more spooky than trying to make a right-hand turn on this highway," Kleinjan said.
"You can remember when there was a service station on every corner in the Hi-Line," he added. "I think the loss of tourism and loss of traffic through here has definitely had a serious impact on our economy. Whether a new road will bring that is something we'll have to see. But we gotta try."