By Tim Leeds
One common theme surfaced at the first meeting of an advisory committee that will help decide the future of U.S. Highway 2 between Havre and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation:
The public must be involved in and informed about the decision-making process.
"I hope the people contact us and let us know what they feel," Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette, a member of the committee, said at the meeting Wednesday.
The 12-member Citizens Advisory Committee will participate in the development of an environmental impact statement for the possible widening of Highway 2 to four lanes.
Committee members will provide the consultant, David Evans and Associates of Denver, information about important issues in the area. Evans and Associates will determine what, if any, improvements on the highway are the best alternatives under the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1965.
Members of the Montana Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and the consultant's project staff were at the meeting to explain the EIS process to the council, answer their questions and collect information.
Debra Perkins-Smith, project manager for Evans and Associates, said the job of the consultant is to research and analyze the issues surrounding the proposed project and to document the findings.
"We do not make the decisions," she said.
The advisory committee will play a key role in the research, Perkins-Smith said. It will be the consultant's liaison with the community, helping identify key issues, engage the public, develop visions and goals, and help create and refine alternatives for the project.
The committee members were asked at the meeting to tell the consultant what their hopes and fears are for the project.
Craig Erickson of Bear Paw Development Corp. attended the meeting for committee member Debbie Vandeberg, executive director of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce.
Erickson said he hopes the alternatives the consultant looks at during the process don't become politicized. Emotions run very high about the issue, and a common stance seems to be "Either you're for four lanes or you're against us,'" he said.
Bob Sivertsen, president of the Highway 2 Association, said the negative comments he has heard about the project all seem to come from misunderstandings and misinformation.
"It's important that we move forward on the same wavelength and put factual information out there," he said.
Sivertsen said his main hope is that the project moves forward and results in a four-lane highway being built. Western Montana needs a four-lane Highway 2 because of high traffic rates, he said, and eastern Montana needs the four-lane because it's "vital to the reinvigoration of the economy."
John Healy, transportation planner for the Fort Belknap Indian Community, said he hopes the EIS will result in a better highway that could help the reservation's tourism industry and the rest of its economy. His fear is that improving the highway is likely to cause people to speed on by.
Chinook Mayor Bill Oehmcke voiced a similar fear.
Something needs to be done to improve the 48-mile section of highway, which is a bottleneck between its intersections with U.S. Higway 87 and state Highway 66. But he doesn't want an improved road to bypass Chinook.
Havre businessman Max Erickson said the section of highway definitely needs work, but it's only a start to helping the economy. The supporters need to work on improving the highway across the entire state, he said, and in getting other communities involved.
"If we're going to attract tourists, we need a corridor that's attractive to drive," he said.
Craig Erickson said he hopes the EIS will help determine how much the highway improvements would help the economy. Many people tout highway improvements as a way to improve the economy, but it's hard to get grasp how much it will help, he said.
"I'm not saying it won't have an impact, it's just how do you quantify it," he said.
People need to understand that NEPA guidlines have to be followed in the study, Perkins-Smith said. NEPA guidelines must be followed in any federally funded project that could have significant environmental impacts.
Congress appropriated $2 million to study and begin improvements on Highway 2 after the 2001 Montana Legislature passed a law requiring MDT to seek new federal funding to widen Highway 2 to four lanes.
Under the 2001 state law, Congress must appropriate all of the funding for a four-lane project. No state money could be used.
The EIS will study the impacts of a four-lane highway as well as other possible alternatives, like a wider two-lane road. The Federal Highway Administration will make the final decision.
Perkins-Smith said her company is committed to meeting a 24-month deadline to complete the EIS. EISs generally take about three years to complete.
Mick Johnson, MDT's Great Falls District administrator, said the time frame for construction will depend on which alternative is selected. If the EIS is completed by 2004 and the Federal Highway Administration decides a four-lane is preferable, construction could begin in 2009, he said.
The advisory committee will hold about nine more meetings before the EIS is completed. A public meeting about the project will be scheduled for late October or November.
Perkins-Smith said people should contact members of the advisory committee to share their ideas and concerns.
The members of the committee are: Fort Belknap Indian Community transportation planner John Healey, Blaine County Commissior Don Swenson, Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette, Havre Mayor Bob Rice, Harlem Mayor Jason Gibson, Chinook Mayor Bill Oehmcke, Havre Chamber executive director Debbie Vandeberg, Highway 2 Association president Bob Sivertson, Chinook businessman Robert Sharples, state Rep. Matt McCann, Havre businessman Max Erickson and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway representative Dave Boen.