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MDT bus tour sees projects along US Hwy 2 from Havre to Fort Belknap Agency


June 27, 2018

Participants in a recent Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) bus tour of the US 2 corridor listen as a state engineer explains plans for the next phase of reconstruction around Lohman. The "Lohman E & W" project involves 10.4 miles of roadway starting at the west edge of Chinook and proceeds west. The work is planned to begin in 2019.

Last week about 30 people joined a Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) bus tour to view completed and future road projects along US 2 from Havre to Fort Belknap. The tour was held the day before the MDT's meeting conducted in Havre.

District Three Transportation Commissioner Greg Jergeson, from Chinook, said each year MDT conducts a bus tour in one of its five MDT districts. "Until this tour," Jergeson added, "only MDT officials and transportation commissioners participated in the annual tour. This year, in addition to the MDT folks and MDT Transportation Commissioners, we invited elected local government officials, candidates for local offices from the area, media representatives and the public.

Jergeson said the tour was to show locals and other MDT Transportation Commissioners road projects that have been completed and being planned for the future along the 40 mile corridor from Havre to Fort Belknap. "Opening the tour," he said, "gives more transparency to the process of selecting and doing road projects." Montana Senator Mike Lang from Malta, who represents an area north of US 2, was on the tour. He introduced Senate Bill 182 that requires MDT to "more fully engage the public in planning road projects." The opening of the bus tour was one of several initiatives to get the public more involved in the selection of highway projects.

Bus tour began at the MDT Office on the west edge of Havre and headed east

MDT staff had prepared a number of handouts including budget figures for projects and maps of projects that will be starting soon. There were also safety statistics about the 6.7 mile stretch (east of Havre near the Blaine/Hill County line and location of the passing lanes between Lohman and Havre) that was completed in 2010.

With widened roadways and shoulders, more turning lanes, two areas with passing lanes, and less severe drop-off from the edge of the pavement to ditches, there was a definite improvement in safety performance between the 10 years before the improvements and the eight years since the work. The total number of crashes had declined from 99 to 48, fatalities were reduced from three to one and, overall, crashes resulting in injury went from 38 before the 2010 roadwork to 16 in the following years.

Other completed projects on US 2 were part of the reconstruction program. About 12 miles of improvements, including the 2010 project, added a 4-lane urban section on the east edge of Havre and, more recently in 2013, the "transition rural to urban" project on the east side of Havre.

New projects in the plans

Part of the tour included a trip south on State Route 66 out of Fort Belknap Agency to show tour participants an existing pedestrian/bicycle pathway that runs along the highway. A similar pathway, including a new walking bridge over the Milk River, is scheduled to be built from the Agency to the city of Harlem.

The next scheduled improvement on US 2 is called the "Lohman E & W" section and is set to begin in 2019. That 10.4 mile reconstruction begins at the city limits of Chinook and continues west to about a mile west of the old Plainsman Bar (near mile marker 393). That new section will have two five lane passing areas. A five lane passing area, usually at least a mile long, will have two travel lanes both east and west with a turn lane in the center.

On the Lohman project one of the 5-lane passing areas will begin about the Red Rock Coulee bridge just out of Chinook and continue one mile west. The other will begin further west running from Loge Road to Highland Road. A west bound only passing lane will start just west of the Plainsman and run west for a mile.

The corridor running east from Chinook to Fort Belknap will have future improvements. MDT engineers said those projects will be done basically in three segments to reconstruct that 24-mile part of US 2. Each of those three areas, at this point in time, is scheduled for widening and adding safer shoulders and more gently sloping right of ways. None of those projects are anticipated to be ready before 2022.

In 2021 MDT hopes to replace a number of culverts along the corridor from Chinook to Harlem, noting many of the culverts are beyond their useful life or, in some cases, have failed recently. An additional benefit from replacing the culverts soon will speed up construction when roadway reconstruction begins later. Engineers said at this point in time they would likely begin with the eastern portion of the corridor for major reconstruction.

Road reconstruction from Havre to Fort Belknap poses many challenges

MDT engineers said the 40-mile corridor that was part of the bus tour presents some costly challenges for road reconstruction. Much of that corridor is very narrow with the railroad on one side and farming and irrigation infrastructure on the other. The limited right of way poses difficulties locating passing and turn lanes as well as widening the roadway and shoulders to more modern safety standards. The engineers added that it is often a problem to have adequate room for a safe slope of the embankment from the edge of a roadway to ditches alongside the roadway

Finally, it was pointed out that the soil composure of much of the Milk River valley is not conducive to road building and materials often have to be hauled in to bolster the base. That problem is complicated as fill and gravel often have to come from areas outside the valley involving costly hauling.

Lots of questions from bus tour guests

Still a relative newcomer to the area, even I had heard gripes that the turn lanes added in 2010 "took all the good places to pass." MDT engineers said they had heard some of that pushback and that was part of the reason for plans to add the longer, 5-lane passing areas in the future sections of US 2 to be upgraded.

A more current issue, that I was not aware of, was pushback about "rumble strips" recently created on most major highways in our area. The head of District Three, based in Great Falls, said he'd "gotten an earful of complaints when the strips were first cut into the roadways." Again, citing improved safety data, he said the strips certainly have their place. He explained that there is some experimentation about how wide and 'aggressive' the strips need to be. There are also concerns about making sure maintenance, like resealing, doesn't destroy strips that are cut too shallow. It's still a work in progress. The district official did say, "After this bad winter I did get some calls from people saying they liked the strips because it helped them keep in their lane even in snow and ice."

At a stop in the pullout in front of The Spa in Zurich, several questions were raised about the current railway crossing from US 2 into the Zurich area. People familiar with the size of modern farming equipment said there isn't room to wait safely between the tracks and the highway. Jergeson, noting he's also heard concerns about the crossing, said it may be necessary to move the crossing. "Before that happens," he said, "we would want to have sufficient input to understand the problem and some possible ways to fix it."

Most everyone on the tour seemed to come away with a better understanding of the plans for future roadwork and some of the challenges engineers face along the US 2 corridor. Asked about his assessment of the first 'public tour,' Transportation Commissioner Jergeson said, "I thought it was great. Even the commission chair who initially opposed the idea of opening up the tour to more varied groups, gave the process high marks at the conclusion of the tour." This first public tour may well set the bar for future MDT tours in other districts.


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