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Swamp Creek project doesn't make cut

by Canda Harbaugh & Western News
| May 19, 2009 12:00 AM

The Swamp Creek road construction project on Highway 2 will not receive stimulus funds and the Montana Department of Transportation continues to list it as a “beyond 2013” project.

County commissioner Tony Berget is fuming over that news.

The nine-mile stretch of highway southeast of Libby is so dangerous, Berget said, that it’s borderline negligent of the MDOT to not fund the project within a reasonable timeframe.

“It’s getting to the point where there’s personal liability,” Berget said.

He contends that the project, which has been in the works since the mid-1980s, fits the criteria to receive funding from the Recovery and Reinvestment Act but that it has been railroaded by MDOT’s wish to revert funds to higher-traffic highway projects.  

Jim Lynch, MDOT director, said that the project was not considered for stimulus funding because further design work was needed to make it “shovel ready.” The stimulus bill stipulated that MDOT spend half of its $211 million by June 30 this year and the other half by Sept. 17 next year.

Lynch also argued that the state’s system of allocating funds to projects every year is performance-based and takes politics out of the equation.

A three-mile section of the original 12-mile project was rebuilt two years ago. Two remaining sections between mile markers 45 and 54 – Libby Creek-South and Swamp Creek-East – continue to be pushed into the unknown future.

The cost to rebuild the remainder of the project was estimated at $53 million in 2006, but the cost is now between $60 million-$70 million, Lynch said. Berget pointed out that he would have been content with stimulus funding for just one section.

Shortly after the stimulus bill passed in February, the Kiplinger Report listed a section of the project as one of three high priority Montana jobs that was likely to be funded.

However, Lynch said it was not even on a preliminary list.

“Swamp Creek could never meet the timeline so it has never been an eligible project,” Lynch said. “If we miss those obligation dates the money goes back to the states that can meet those timeframes.”

At last week’s commissioner’s meeting, Berget vented his frustrations to Doug Moeller and Shane Stack of the northwest district of MDOT.

“In 2004 they said they needed to redesign,” Berget said. “In 2006 (former MDOT district administrator) Dwane Kailey said we have this new design and we’re going to do this retaining wall. It’s been over and over again. It’s obviously not a priority – period – for the state.”

A 50-percent rise in construction costs between 2005 and 2007 has caused the most recent delays, but the immense cost of engineering a road on swampy ground against the mountains has been a stumbling block from the beginning.

“The project is moving along,” Moeller said at the meeting. “It isn’t stagnant. They’re doing some major redesigns on it to get it fundable for one thing. It’s a huge, huge cost.”

MDOT continues to redesign the project to find the most cost-effective equation for current construction costs.

“It’s a tough balancing act,” Stack said at the meeting. “You either cut the retaining walls or you fill and have to work on berms and make sure your roads are going to be stable. You try to shift back to retaining walls when you’re paying a lot of money for berms.”

Berget said that the safety factor should outweigh the cost. He points out that Highway 2, between the Idaho border and Kalispell, was named one of five of the country’s most dangerous roads in a 2005 article by MSNBC. The road has no shoulder and the Swamp Creek-East section includes four aging bridges that were built in the 1930s.

“They’re completely deteriorated into nothing,” Berget said. “The rebar is sticking out and every year it gets worse.”

Even if everything falls into place, the earliest the project could go to bid is 2012, Lynch said. He points out the positive side.

“It is moving projects off the list,” Lynch said. “It is beneficial to projects like Swamp Creek because that’s $211 million in projects that it’s not competing against.”

As for Berget, he has contacted Congress and will be attending Transportation Commission meetings in Helena.

“Every meeting they have from here on out,” Berget said, “I will be there in person or on the phone or have someone go for me.”