Consultants: Wider U.S. 2 would create few economic benefits


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The consultant studying the economic impact of widening U.S. Highway 2 between Havre and Fort Belknap said he hasn't found any businesses that would be helped by widening the highway.

"There would be little benefit to widening U.S. 2," Jeff Ang-Olson of ITC said. "Little is being held back by the condition of U.S. 2 now."

ITC is conducting the economic portion of an environmental impact statement on the potential widening of Highway 2. Ang-Olson and Debra Perkins-Smith of David Evans and Associates, the project leader for the EIS, were the featured speakers at the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting Wednesday.

The EIS is the result of Senate Bill 3, which directed the Montana Department of Transportation to seek federal funding to widen Highway 2 to four lanes across the state. Bill sponsor Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, R-Glasgow, cited safety and economic improvement as the two main reasons to widen the highway.

Perkins-Smith said the EIS they are doing for MDT is just for the section between Havre and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

"It's the busiest section of U.S. 2," Perkins-Smith said. "So they thought they would start here."

Ang-Olson said his team has identified businesses and industries that rely on the highway, but said widening U.S. 2 to four lanes wouldn't impact them much.

Almost 200,000 families or groups drive to Glacier National Park every year, and communities in the study area could capitalize on that, he said. Fewer than 4 percent of those tourists stop at sites in the study area, like the Wahkpa Chu'gn bison kill site, Fort Assinniboine and Havre Beneath the Streets, Ang-Olson said.

If communities tried to attract more tourists to those sites, an additional 20,000 to 30,000 might stop, he said.

"It's not clear that development of these sites is being hindered by U.S. 2," he said.

Improving Highway 2 would provide one definite economic benefit, Ang-Olson said. It would help the users of the highway by reducing accidents and wear and tear on vehicles.

One of the largest groups using the highway is workers commuting to their jobs, he said.

In an interview after the presentation, Ang-Olson said improving the highway would probably also have little impact on trucking. Truckers normally take the shortest route, whether it's two lanes or four lanes, he said.

"Unless there's a glaring safety problem, most will take the most direct route," he said.

Perkins-Smith said a survey of truckers showed that 74 percent said their top reason for choosing a route is because it is the most direct route. Their No. 2 reason is because they have a stop on the route, she said.

A fact sheet provided by the consultants said commercial traffic makes up about 9 to 10 percent of the traffic in the study area.

The results of ITC's economic study will probably be given to MDT for analysis in about two months, Perkins-Smith said.

The next stage of the economic study will be to conduct a cost-benefit analysis - the ratio of the cost to economic benefits - of the different alternatives David Evans identifies, she said.

The team has identified several possible alternatives for highway improvements from comments in the first round of public meetings, Perkins-Smith said during the meeting. The final recommendation in the EIS could include different types of highway improvements at various locations along the 45-mile stretch.

The consulting firm held two series of public meetings in Havre, Chinook, Harlem and Fort Belknap last fall, and has held four meetings with a citizens advisory council formed to help with the study. The project team is meeting today with the council, which consists of 14 local citizens, including the president of the Highway 2 Association, Bob Sivertsen.

The two-year study, which began last summer, has just begun the second step in a four-step process. Perkins-Smith said the first step was to identify a need or purpose for highway improvements, and that step is being finalized now. The second is to identify alternatives for improving the highway, the third is to analyze the benefits and ecological impacts of the alternatives, and the fourth is to identify what the preferred alternative or solution is.

The main needs identified so far are safety concerns, she said. While the study area has a lower accident rate for trucks, it has a rate about 11 percent higher than the state average for cars.

Some alternatives for highway construction were suggested by the public during the meetings.

In east Havre, the alternatives include no action, an improved two-lane highway, a three-lane highway, a four-lane or a five-lane highway. In Chinook, the alternatives include no action, a three-lane highway with limited parking, a narrow four-lane highway with no parking, or four or five lanes with parking.

Perkins-Smith said to have four or five lanes with parking in Chinook, buildings would have to be moved or removed. Otherwise, onstreet parking would have to be eliminated, she said.

"We're not placing any value judgment, just listing the alternatives," she added.

The next round of public meetings is scheduled for the spring. They will seek public comments on the range of alternatives developed. More meetings will be held in the fall to get comments on the draft EIS.

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