By Tim Leeds
Work is moving along on an environmental impact statement on the proposed widening of U.S. Highway 2 between Havre and Fort Belknap to four lanes.
"My goal right now, first of all, is to get the document done that meets the intent, but to get it done in substantially less time than 36 months," Mick Johnson, Great Falls district administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation, said today.
MDT has scheduled a meeting with David Evans and Associates, a Denver contractor, on April 23 to discuss issues like a timeline to complete the study and the issues the study should cover.
The study is a result of a bill passed by the 2001 Legislature directing MDT to seek federal funding to widen Highway 2 to four lanes without using any state funds or affecting other state highway projects. Congress appropriated $2 million last year to conduct a study and to plan construction of the highway.
Johnson said his department has been working with the Federal Highway Administration and Bob Sivertsen, president of the Highway 2 Association, to prepare a rough draft of the purpose of the study. Evans and Associates will use the draft to get ideas for their proposal.
"(It will) give them a direction to focus on," Johnson said.
To create the draft, Johnson and his staff looked at other studies, including those done in North Dakota to widen Highway 2 to four lanes. North Dakota is close to finishing widening the last 100 miles of Highway 2 in that state.
Johnson said the economic impact of widening Highway 2 is part of the draft purpose statement, as is safety.
"(Safety's) always our number one concern," he said.
The economic development component is new and hasn't been a factor in other highway studies Johnson has been involved with.
The cost of the study isn't known yet, Johnson said, but the final amount appropriated is close to $1.8 million. The amount MDT finally receives is generally less than the amount Congress approved, once all funds available are split between projects around the country.
If any money is left after the EIS is paid for, Johnson said, it will be used for planning and design.
The timeline for an EIS is usually three years, but Johnson said the Highway 2 study will probably take less than 30 months.
"The quicker we can get this done the better," he said. "It's no use sitting around the coffee table bickering. I think it's less expensive the quicker it's done, too."
Johnson is working with Sivertsen to put together a citizen committee from the study area to work with the consultant and help advise on issues in the study.
The Burton K. Wheeler Center, a public policy center in Bozeman, is focusing on the effect of highway funding on economic development at its 2002 roundtable discussion in Great Falls. The center will use the efforts to widen Highway 2 to four lanes as a case study for the discussion.
The roundtable also will focus on an ongoing study ordered by Gov. Judy Martz about what highway work can mean to the state's economy and a new economic development component being added to MDT's comprehensive highway planning.
Johnson said the roundtable is coming at a perfect time.
"This is a pretty good kickoff point," he said. "I'd like to see some people (from the Hi-Line) interested in coming down."
State Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, the sponsor of the state Highway 2 legislation, and state and national experts on transportation issues are invited to attend. U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns are scheduled to participate via teleconferencing.
The roundtable will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Great Falls Holiday Inn on April 16. A schedule and registration are available at the Wheeler Center's Web site, or by calling the center at (406) 994-0336. Registration is due by April 12. There is a $15 charge, including lunch, which can be paid at the door or mailed to the center by the registration deadline.
On the Net: Burton K. Wheeler Center roundtable: www.montana.edu/wheeler/sping_roundtable_2002.htm