By Tim Leeds
Movement toward a four-lane highway in northern Montana is now under way.
Dave Galt, director of the Montana Department of Transportation, said Tuesday he will submit an application this week to the Federal Highway Administration to prepare an environmental impact statement on the effects of widening U.S. Highway 2 between Havre and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. If the environmental study is approved, the project will move forward.
MDT decided to pursue the EIS after asking for local comment. Pursuing the study means that other work already planned to improve that stretch of Highway 2 will stop.
After hearing overwhelming support for pursing the four-lane project, both at a public meeting in Havre and from an informal survey, MDT has decided to do the EIS.
"I'm hoping we can have somebody on line in 90 to 120 days," Galt said. " We're going to ride herd on this and get this as fast as we can."
Janice Brown of the Highway Administration's division office in Great Falls said she's certain the project will be funded but isn't sure how much money will be available.
Congress appropriated $1 million to conduct a study and $1 million to make improvements on the road. Estimates of the final amount that actually will be available have ranged from about $1.6 million to $1.8 million.
"It could be $1.5 million, I don't know," Galt said. "It's going to be less than $2 million, though, that's for sure."
That decision won't be made until the Highway Adminstration reviews all applications and matches them with the money actually available.
There were two separate earmarks in the appropriation, he said, but since both will be reduced it might take both to do the study. Even the total of both might not be enough, he said.
"I really hope it's enough," Galt said. "We really don't know that."
MDT's Great Falls district administrator Mick Johnson today estimated the study will take between $750,000 and $1 million to complete.
Both he and Galt said the study probably could be completed within 30 months once it is started.
After that, the next step would be to design the highway recommended by the study. Galt said that recommendation might not be a four-lane highway. He said the purpose of the study is to pick the alternative that solves the problems on the highway with the least impact on people and the environment.
"It's going to be very important for people in the area to help the department and help the contractor (doing the study) to understand and quantify the economic impact of this project," he said.
Since the study will decide what work needs to be done, Galt said, that means work planned now has to stop.
"One thing you can't do is predetermine the solution," he said. "If we built a two-lane it would predetermine the solution. We won't do any more work on any projects until the (environmental impact statement) is done."
Because of that, planned projects to widen that section of Highway 2 to a 40-foot two-lane have been put on hold and that money will be allocated to other projects. MDT had one project planned to start in 2005 to widen the highway from Havre east about 12 miles.
Brown said that, and other projects planned to be put on the books in the next few years, will have to be delayed.
"It's in accordance with federal regulations to get the best use of public funds," she said.
Residents have expressed concern that projects move as quickly as possible, but the overall opinion was in support of the EIS. At a public meeting in Havre, Galt said, most of the people who spoke were interested in doing the study.
"Most were pretty well harmonious for a four-lane," Johnson said.
MDT asked the Hill and Blaine county commissioners to add their comment as well. The Havre Area Chamber of Commerce did an informal survey for the commissioners to find out what public opinion was.
Galt said Blaine County Commissioner Art Kleinjan told him the responses came back about 2-to-1 in favor of the study.
In conjunction with the EIS, Galt said he will try to get permission from the Highway Administration to improve or replace a bridge about six miles west of Chinook.
Johnson said his goal is to try to split the bridge project from the study and do it as a spot improvement. He said the bridge, which is currently a 24-foot-wide metal bridge, is a hindrance to traffic speed and safety.
That project would be done with separate federal money, and not touch the $2 million appropriated in conjunction with Senate Bill 3, the bill the 2001 Legislature passed directing MDT to seek special appropriations to widen Highway 2.
If the recommendation of the EIS is a four-lane, new appropriations will be needed from Congress to continue with the project.
Galt said he does not know if any more appropriations will be proposed for widening Montana's 667 miles of Highway 2 in the near future.
"In the legislative process on Senate Bill 3, our best estimate (of the total cost) was $1.2 billion," he said. "We're taking baby steps on this, taking the most needed section. I believe the funding will be found for this section we'll worry about the other sections later."