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Consultant defends economic study for Highway 2


HARLEM - Several members of an advisory committee for the U.S. Highway 2 project from Havre to Fort Belknap took issue Monday with an economic part of a study at a meeting in Harlem.

"I'm really troubled by this," said Bob Sivertsen, president of the Highway 2 Association. "It's flawed and it's incomplete."

Jeff Ang-Olson of ICF Consulting, the firm hired to conduct the economic study, told the committee that widening the highway would bring many jobs during construction, but he found no evidence that widening the highway would significantly improve the economy in the long term.

"I want to emphasize I know this is not the result a lot of people wanted to hear," he said. "We were looking for any way to link economic growth to highway improvements. We couldn't find the link."

Ang-Olson added that he realizesthere may be other "very legitimate" reasons for widening the highway to four lanes.

The economic study is part of an environmental impact statement being written by David Evans and Associates of Denver for the Montana Department of Transportation. MDT commissioned the study after the 2001 Legislature passed a law directing MDT to lobby Congress for money to widen Highway 2 to four lanes across the state of Montana, without requiring any state funding.

Monday's meeting included the presentation of a cost-benefit analysis of the project, including the first official estimates of the cost of different lane configurations. The estimates include construction, right of way acquisition, design and maintenance costs.

The construction of an improved two-lane on the 45-mile stretch of roadway is estimated at $62.9 million, compared with $66.4 for a two-lane with passing lanes, $85.1 million for an undivided four-lane, and $95.4 million for a divided four-lane.

The costs are still preliminary and could be adjusted by what the EIS reports, Ang-Olson said.

Mick Johnson, administrator of MDT's Great Falls district, said he has set aside $10 million to $12 million for rebuilding the first 10-mile section of the project east of Havre in 2008. If a four-lane is the alternative selected, Congress will have to provide the rest, about 30 percent more, he said.

MDT made its recommendation for the highway configuration in October. The department recommended building a four-lane undivided highway as its preferred alternative.

The economic study is only one part of the EIS, which also studies environmental, cultural, historical and archeological impacts of the project.

Joe Hart of David Evans said he expects that a preliminary draft of the EIS will be complete and available for review by the different state and federal agencies involved within a couple of weeks. The draft of the EIS will be put out for public comment probably in February or March, and the final report and the decision of the Federal Highway Administration will probably be available in the summer of 2004, he said.

Hart said the lack of support for a four-lane in the economic study doesn't mean a four-lane configuration is not a possibility. If the study had shown a link, it would have made a four-lane more likely, he said.

"We thought it would be a conclusive bit of information and it wasn't," Hart said.

Johnson said MDT's support of the four-lane configuration doesn't guarantee that will be the chosen option. MDT is just one of several agencies making recommendations to the Federal Highway Administration, which has the final say on the configuration of highway projects using federal money.

If, for example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finds that a four-lane would harm wetlands or river crossings more than a two-lane, it may recommend the two-lane, he said.

Steve Long of David Evans said the team doing the EIS is making sure information about all the possible alternatives is included to make sure the other agencies have the big picture.

"They kind of look for cut and dried solutions more than I would like," he said of the Corps of Engineers. "That's why we nested in the information so they can see the whole context of what the project is about."

Sivertsen said many things seem to be left out of the economic study. For example, he said, the report says distance to markets is a bigger problem for economic growth on the Hi-Line than the condition of the highway. Considering the great distances that many products are shipped today, he said, that doesn't seem to be a factor.

Businesses won't move to the area because of the width of the highway, he said.

"We haven't been able to compete so they've written us off," he said.

He also said another problem is that the study only looks at a 45-mile segment of the highway, while the intent of the state law is to create an economic corridor from Minneapolis to Seattle.

"Us standing alone, we have nothing," he said. "But as a corridor the picture's a lot different."

Ang-Olson said the area studied was set by MDT.

"They had to define the study somehow," he said. "That wasn't our decision."

Johnson said at the press conference that widening Highway 2 in Montana won't create that corridor. A section on the western edge of North Dakota will still be two lane, and it is two lane in Idaho, he said.

Highway 2 is two lane through most of Washington, with some sections of four-lane configuration, Jamie Holter of the Washington State Department of Transportation said today.

Blaine County Commissioner Delores Plumage, a member of the advisory committee, agreed with Sivertsen that widening the highway is crucial for economic development. She said the highway needs to be improved to increase traffic, and used the large number of people who travel to American Indian powwows in Montana and across the country as an example.

"They need to have a good highway," she said.

The highway needs to be widened before economic growth can happen, she said.

"It's like the chicken and the egg," she said. "We need a good base of infrastructure to get people to move here."

Fort Belknap Indian Community Council President Ben Speakthunder, who attended the meeting, said Fort Belknap is working on several economic development projects, including a meat-packing plant near Malta that the tribe recently purchased.

"It's important not just to have a safe infrastructure, but to have one to attract business," he said.

Ang-Olson said the study didn't back up those ideas. He said he studied economic information about the area, and conducted many interviews with business owners and with people whose businesses had failed or never got off the ground.

The interviews didn't show that the condition of the highway led to the failure of businesses, Ang-Olson said. Most people said the distance to markets or lack of capital were the reason for failure, he said.

Ang-Olson added that the highway is a vital part of the economy, and it needs to be improved. While widening it to a four-lane won't provide significant economic improvements, safety and passing improvements need to be made just to maintain the existing economy, he said.

The cost-benefit analysis provided by Ang-Olson showed that all of the alternatives cost more than the benefit they will provide.

At the press conference Monday afternoon, Johnson and the consultants said that is not unusual with projects in rural areas, although most of those projects don't use a cost-benefit analysis.

"I build them based on need," Johnson said.


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