The Glasgow Courier - Serving Proudly As The Voice Of Valley County Since 1913

By Bonnie Davidson
The Courier 

What To Do With HWY 2?

Montana Transportation Boss Visits Glasgow To Talk Issues


Bonnie Davidson / The Courier

Montana Department of Transportation Director Mike Tooley speaks in Glasgow at the Highway 2 Association meeting. He spoke to city, county and tribal officials about maintenance and upgrade concerns.

"I don't want to borrow on the highway future," Director of Montana Department of Transportation Mike Tooley said at a meeting that took place at the Cottonwood Inn in Glasgow on Friday.

Tooley came to the Highway 2 Association quarterly meeting, and he was able to address officials from along the Hi-Line. With increased traffic, some smaller communities along the Hi-Line have been concerned with maintenance and possible upgrades to Hwy. 2.

The Hwy. 2 Association has been pushing "4 for 2" for 12 years, suggesting that Hwy. 2 needs four lanes for traffic for both economic benefit and now to relieve traffic issues from the Bakken. Representatives from Sheridan and Roosevelt counties, representatives from the Fort Peck Tribe and officials from Havre, Culbertson and the business Pacific Steele came to hear what concerns could be addressed.

Tooley, who is actually familiar with the area, was posted in Wolf Point while he served as the trooper. He explained that the biggest issue for upgrades is funding. He opened discussion explaining to those in attendance that $166 million has been spent on Hwy. 2 since 2007, east of I-15, and the biggest contract ever through the Department of Transportation for $34 million was a project on Hwy. 2.

Highway 2 Association President Bob Sivertsen explained that they had concerns with studies being brought more up to date with the increase in traffic and the many changes that had taken place since the last studies were completed. Other concerns that came up was a possible decline in the highway trust funds and the decline in funding for highways.

Tooley explained that the TRED (Transportation Rural Economic Development) study is something they've been looking at completing but staffing and resources are limited. He said that they were given $11 million from the general fund, but that funding was just a short term fix, still leaving them short for about a quarter of the fiscal year and they are currently trying to figure out how to fill that gap. He stated that the needs for the transportation department added up to $1.5 billion, but the current funding is at $440 million.

"This is a nonpartisan issue, but money is a partisan issue," Tooley said. "We'll be talking to the senate and congress over the year."

He also added that he was advised that Congress doesn't currently see this as a crisis issue and that right now the Congress is working on crisis issues only. He also told those who attended that he spoke to Senator Jon Tester on the issue and that the transportation department needed a long term plan on highway funding.

"Highway funding is up in the air, you can't really count on it right now," Tooley said.

He explained that several projects are planned, but currently the focus is on maintaining what is already there and repairing roads. Trying to get upgrades is difficult. He said that the department is now looking at "the right treatment at the right time, in the right place."

They are trying to get four lanes put in near Bainville now to help alleviate the traffic closest to the Bakken, but discussions and agreements have had to take place with North Dakota and with residents who own the land along the proposed construction and widening of the highway. That project will cost around $29 million and is projected to be completed in 2017, but has slowed down due to issues with acquiring land for the road. Tooley was asked if the department wasn't offering enough for the property and Tooley responded that they were paying market value and trying to negotiate after that if they turn down the deal.

"When someone flat out doesn't want the project, money is not an issue," Tooley said.

State Representative Mike Lang, who attended the meeting, asked about imminent domain and wanted to know if there was a law in place that would allow the department to continue if a higher percentage of property owners agreed with the project. Tooley responded that there is no such law.

Questions and references to House Bill 218, a bill that was vetoed by Governor Steve Bullock, came up during the meeting. The bill would have allowed around $35 million to go toward counties impacted by energy development for infrastructure. Tooley thought that the bill might come up again this year, but said that it might be up to the people to get the word out to legislators.

The bill widely passed both in the House and the Senate with little opposition. The question came up if bonding was an option. It was something Tooley wasn't looking at seriously in an option. He noted that Hwy. 93 successfully bondied their highway project and the department was paying $15 million back per year, but that the highway was already needing some major improvements and work and still had five more years until it was paid off.

As the first session with officials wrapped up, the group moved into another room where more officials from Glasgow showed up. Tooley gave a recap to those joining on issues that had been brought up. He reiterated that Congress needed to find "sustainable, predictable and long term funding" for the Montana Department of Transportation.

He added that Montana was fifth in the nation for highways, but that means they have less of a chance for funding and it means they also will struggle to sustain what is already here. He said that there has been some pushes to market Montana in the Montana Main Street Program. Currently they are collecting concerns from communities, roads and transportation might be some of the information gathered. His hope was to highlight issues with travel.

"Government, if citizens aren't engaged, it seems to go off and do their own thing," Tooley said.

Carol Lambert, the District 4 highway commissioner, added that contacting legislators in person or by phone could be more effective than handing a large stack of information. As legislators sometimes don't have time to read through vast amounts of information. She said that citizens and groups like the Highway 2 Association needed to stay involved.

"We all need to, especially when it comes to the Bakken corridor," Lambert said. "It's all of us."

Tooley wrapped up noting that his priorities in legislature this year would be allowing CMGCs (construction management/ general contractor) so that more collaboration could take place between contractors and the transportation department, possibly saving money in the long run. He also said wanted to work on a quick clearance for crashes that blocked roadways. The idea is it would free highways faster to lessen the economic impact of such accidents.


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