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Swamp Creek funds added to highway bill

| August 3, 2005 12:00 AM

State highway plans for the Swamp Creek section of U.S. Highway 2 may not be ready but $6 million in funding for the project has been earmarked in the latest national highway bill approved by Congress last week.

Montana Senator Max Baucus has secured $6 million to help improve U.S. Highway 2, southeast of Libby.

Portions of Highway 2 have not been repaired since 1939. The highway is extremely narrow and in much need of repair to accommodate traffic, Baucus said.

The funding that Baucus is securing will go towards roadway and bridge reconstruction for a twelve-mile stretch of Highway 2, called Swamp Creek East, which is southeast of Libby from about milepost 45 to milepost 58. A Baucus staff member said photos of the roadway, especially the four bridges, helped convinced the senator something needed to be done.

The Montana Department of Transportation has been working on various proposals for the 13-mile section of highway since 1985. Indecision on what to do with the section of highway, as well as funding priorities, have delayed actual reconstruction of the roadway.

In February 2004, Libby officials and residents rode a bus to Helena and presented their concerns to the state highway commission. Among those concerns were an accident rate higher than any other highway in the state, narrow bridges built in 1934 that have

crumbling road surfaces and concrete railings, no road shoulders , frequent frost heaves and potholes.

At that meeting, then MDOT deputy administrator Jim Currie said he didn't believe funding for reconstruction was available before 2008. The state did promise and follow through on an asphalt overlay to smooth out the surface of that section of highway.

To date, the Montana Department of Transportation has spent $8 million on the project, which will cost about $21 million to reconstruct.

Recently, state highway officials told county commissioners that an additional delay may occur because five retaining walls have to be built along part of the highway from mile markers 45 to 57 to shore up soft soils. Dwane Kailey, acting district administrator, said that means a public meeting must be held in September to review the work.

The walls must be up to 200 meters long. The troublesome soil is located just south of an area where a "test berm" project to gather geotechnical information for the road reconstruction was conducted last summer.

The intent of the test was to minimize future maintenance after the road has been rebuilt.

Kailey told commissioners that the Swamp Creek project, first discussed by the state in 1985, has been divided into three sections. Retaining walls are slated for what's known as Swamp Creek e

East, the design for which is scheduled to be completed by summer 2007.

A stretch of highway called Libby Creek-South is targeted for design completion next summer. Meanwhile, bids for Manicke-North, located between the two other segments, should be ready to go out for bids in December 2007, Kailey said.

He emphasized that MDOT is doing all it can to get reconstruction under way.

"We have made this a high priority project," Kailey told commissioners. "It's one of the highest priorities in the state. We are pushing like crazy to get it ready, and we are doing our best to get extra funding."

He noted that no projects on MDOT's schedule have had as many traffic fatalities as U.S. highways 2 and 93.

Baucus said that the $6 million he included in the federal highway bill will be used to move the project into the construction phase and allow officials to "begin turning dirt."

As the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate's Finance Committee, Baucus is helping iron out differences in the new federal transportation bill that will fund highway construction projects in Montana and across the country through 2009. Joint House-Senate conference committee members, including Baucus, are negotiating final details on the bill. Baucus said he expects the bill to pass the Senate and be sent to President Bush.

"This is good news for Libby and Lincoln County," Baucus said. "These dollars will help get Highway 2 up to snuff. And you only have to drive that road once to know it needs some attention. I'm glad I was able to help."

Lincoln County Commissioner Rita Windom, who has worked relentlessly to get the project moving, praised Baucus for the funding and said that the Swamp Creek East project is a priority for the county.

"On behalf of the Libby community, I thank Max for securing these much-needed funds," said Windom. "We knew that Max understood the needs of a growing community and we appreciate all of his hard work and leadership in helping us meet those demands. This project will help make the road safer and more efficient. It will be a great asset to the community."

The 6-year federal highway bill totaling $286.4 billion, including $2.3 billion for Montana, passed the U.S. House and Senate last week. The bill contains more than 1,000 pages with more than 4,000 "earmarks" for specific projects in various states. It represents a 44 percent increase for Montana with $355 million a year expected to be spent.