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Swamp Creek project scaled back

| September 1, 2006 12:00 AM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

State highway officials were in Libby Tuesday to deliver good news and bad news about the planned reconstruction of U.S. 2 in the Swamp Creek area.

The good news is work on the southernmost portion of the project is scheduled to begin next summer. The bad news is the project has been scaled back since it was unveiled a year ago, with the elimination of a climbing lane for trucks and a reduction of the paved shoulder width from 8 feet to 4.

Public comment will be accepted until Oct. 2, said Dwane Kailey, Missoula District administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation. Those comments will be used by the department to make a decision on whether to move ahead with the project or delay it until funding can be found to complete the work as planned last year.

Kailey acknowledged that the much-delayed project — in the works since 1985 — has been "an embarrassment" to his department. Work has been postponed by funding shortages, endangered species issues, right-of-way complications and the difficulty of engineering a roadway on swampy ground butting up against rocky mountainsides. Kailey made it clear that he would prefer to move ahead next year.

"If I delay it, Lord knows what I'm going to run into," he said.

Originally planned as one project between mile markers 45 and 57, Swamp Creek has since been broken into three separate jobs. The southernmost portion, known as North of Manicke-North, is ready to go next year with some concessions due to rising costs. Originally budgeted at around $7 million, rising prices for fuel, steel and other materials, along with engineering complications, drove estimates to around $15 million and prompted a re-evaluation of the design. By eliminating the truck lane and reducing the shoulder width, costly retaining walls can be eliminated and the price can be brought down to an estimated $6.4 million, Kailey said.

The other two sections of the project are Libby Creek-South, estimated at $11 million last year and now at $16 million, and Swamp Creek-East, where the anticipated cost has risen from $21 million to $37 million. Libby Creek-South is tentatively scheduled for 2009, and Swamp Creek-East for beyond 2009. A source of funding for that portion of the project has not yet been identified, Kailey said.

The proposed design for the rebuilt highway includes two 12-foot driving lanes with paved shoulders 4 feet in width, down from the originally planned 8 feet. There would also be a "clear zone" with a 6-to-1 slope along the roadside to improve safety for drivers who leave the pavement.

The current roadway has 11-foot driving lanes with no paved shoulders and a 2-to-1 slope off the side or the highway.

The new design is consistent with a relatively new section of U.S. Highway 2 farther to the south and to Montana Highway 37 north of mile marker 9.

"It is a substantial improvement over what you guys have today," Kailey said.

About 50 people attended Tuesday's meeting with Kailey and other department officials, and a number of those present offered comments critical of the scaled-back design.

"You're taking two huge safety things on that part," said Libby Mayor Tony Berget. He said the changes are hard to accept with the knowledge that the chance of the department revisiting the highway "in my lifetime is practically nil."

Kailey pointed out that design is still much improved over the current road and that the alternative is another delay of several years.

"It is a trade-off, I'll be honest with you," he said.

Area resident Jeff Courtney was also critical of the cutbacks.

"We want you to find some money to do the project right," he said.

Debbie Davidson of the Kootenai River Development Council expressed concerns about the impacts the condition of the highway has on tourism.

"It's very important for safety and our economy to have the wider shoulders," she said.

Forcing people to choose between delaying the project and scaling it back puts them "between a rock and a hard place," said Win Dooley of Libby Volunteer Ambulance.

"I think you guys need to figure out how to fix it right the first time and in a timely manner," she said.

Area resident John Shotzberger spoke up for going ahead with the project next year despite the cutbacks.

"To me, it would be a vast improvement over what we've got right now," he said.

Lincoln County Commissioner Rita Windom said she felt "like Cinderella going to the ball" when project details were announced last year, but now the ball seems more like "a barn dance, and somebody forgot to shovel the barn."

Windom endorsed moving ahead on the project anyway.

"We've been a long time waiting for improvement, and this is at least some improvement," she said.

Libby school superintendent Kirby Maki noted concerns about school buses traveling the highway at night and in bad weather and echoed Windom's sentiments, endorsing the project.

Comments on the proposal can be submitted via a form found online at www.mdt.mt.gov/mdt/comment_form.shtml. They can also be mailed to Mark Studt, MDT Headquarters, P.O. Box 201001, Helena, MT 59620-1001 or faxed to (406) 444-6253.