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John Maricelli, head of procurement for the Missoula Division of the Montana Department of Transportation, holds a new 80 mph sign that will replace the 75 mph signs on interstate highways in the state Thursday. Montana is the fifth state to adopt an 80 mph speed limit on interstate highways.

Travelers in the immediate Missoula area won’t notice much difference Thursday when speed limits are raised to 80 mph on most interstate highways in Montana.

A 20-mile stretch of Interstate 90 with Missoula in the middle will remain at 75 mph and, for a couple of miles, 65 mph.

“You won’t see any change from west of the Wye until you get to Turah, so basically milepost 94 all the way to milepost 114,” said Ed Toavs, Missoula District administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation.

As written, the bill to raise interstate speed limits to 80 mph that was passed by the 2015 Legislature left it up to MDT to certify which stretches of interstates 90, 15 and 94 could handle the increased speeds. All but 140 of 1,192 miles can.

Most of the exceptions are in the mountains west of the Continental Divide on I-90 and through the Boulder and Wolf Creek canyons on I-15.

Drivers headed east from Idaho on I-90 will be restricted to 75 mph for the first 34 miles, from Lookout Pass to just east of St. Regis, said Toavs.

“The reason for that is there’s quite a bit of curvature in that section of interstate and we have a lot of those curves delineated with warning signs, reflective tape and overhead flashers,” Toavs said.

After St. Regis, there’ll be an 80 mph limit for the next 60 miles past Superior, Alberton and Frenchtown. The 20-mile zone around Missoula starts a couple of miles west of the Wye, where it drops to 75. That decreases to 65 mph within the Missoula urban area, then it becomes 75 again near the eastbound East Missoula on-ramp.

The 80 mph stretch resumes roughly seven miles later at Turah and remains in place to Butte, where the speed limit remains at 65 mph.

Section crews across the state will wait until Oct. 1 to post the new speed limits.

“They’ll go out in the morning and work all day to get the new faces up and the new poles,” Toavs said.

Weather allowing, it will all get done that day, he said. That means the statewide installation of 264 new aluminum 80 mph signs, which are bigger than they look at 4 feet by 5 feet, said John Maricelli, head of procurement for the Missoula district of MDT. Another 106 will be overlays, signs on which the “75” is covered by the “80.”

The Missoula district has 44 signs and 12 overlays to post.

***

The Montana Highway Patrol saw this coming.

Utah, Idaho and Wyoming had already raised some interstate limits to 80 and South Dakota was working on it when, two weeks into the Montana legislative session, nine bills and council proposals had been introduced that addressed speed-limit increases.

“It was abundantly clear that something was going to happen to the speed limit whether we liked it or not,” MHP Chief Tom Butler said Monday. “So we elected to partner with (Bozeman state Sen.) Scott Sales to get a bill that everybody could live with.”

Utah has had 80 mph test zones for years on its three interstate systems. Earlier this month, the state added 289 miles and said the test zones are considered permanent.

A study released earlier this year revealed that drivers in Utah’s 80 mph test zone go an average of 82 mph. Previous studies on I-15 said that those vehicles traveled at an average 81 mph in 75-mph zones.

***

Mike Miller lives in Helmville and doesn’t have much personal stake in the higher speed limit.

“A pretty large percentage of my travels are on secondary roads,” Miller noted.

But occasional drives to Arizona through eastern Idaho and Utah, where 80 mph is the rule, gave the Republican representative the idea to try the same in Montana. He introduced two of the nine proposals in the 2015 session, both of which would have raised the speed limits for trucks. Neither got very far, but Miller was a wholehearted supporter of Sales’ bill.

The 80 mph speed limit “seemed to work well (in Idaho and Utah) and I don’t believe drivers in other states are more competent or skilled than Montana drivers,” he said.

Miller said in a compromise with the Highway Patrol, legislators agreed to double fines for speeding on interstate highways – from $20 to $40 for the first 10 mph over the speed limit, up to $200 (from $100) for going more than 30 mph over the limit.

“We’ve had the 75 mph speed limit since mid-1999,” Miller said. “I believe that in the last 16-plus years, the technology and safety features built into cars have increased enough to justify the higher maximum speed limit. And that is exactly what it is – a maximum speed limit. You do not have to drive 75 mph now and you don’t have to drive 80 mph come Thursday.”

Butler acknowledged that many, if not most, drivers already drive 80 mph or more on interstates. How will his troopers react if they see someone going 85 mph in an 80 mph zone?

“I’m going to stick to my quote that I’ve been telling everybody,” Butler said with a chuckle. “The sign says 80 mph. You might get to visit with one of our friendly troopers if you go faster than that.”

“We give a tremendous amount of discretion to our troopers,” he added. “It’s very difficult to treat each traffic stop as black and white. Each is individual, unique and different.”

***

Skeptics and outright opponents of the speed limit bump tend to outweigh the advocates, at least those who posted their thoughts on the Montana Highway Patrol Facebook page Sunday and Monday.

“This is insane,” said Debbie Wilson of Victor. “I am not driving that fast! Now there will be more slaughter on our roads.”

Steve Hogan of Libby called 80 mph “ridiculous.”

“Apparently no one likes scenery anymore,” Hogan wrote.

“Now I’m really gonna be in the way,” said Saul Heinemann of Big Timber, who doesn’t plan on keeping up with the speedier times.

But Kevin Hodge of Dillon thanked the Montana Legislature for raising the limit.

“There’s a lot of wide open spaces and many miles covered,” Hodge reasoned. “As a driver of about 40,000 miles a year, I cannot appreciate how much I enjoy higher speed limits. It’s nice to drive through Idaho and Wyoming now that they are up to 80 as well. Looking forward to Montana catching up.”

Aug. 4, 1994

Missoula's Diane Sands will lead Idaho's gay-rights fight..  Missoulian State Bureau

HELENA _ Diane Sands of Missoula has been named to lead the effort against an anti-gay rights ballot initiative in Idaho.

      Sands, 47, is the executive director of the Montana Women's Lobby and has served as co-chairwoman of PRIDE!, a homosexual political group in Montana.

      As campaign manager for the No On One Coalition, Sands will coordinate a statewide campaign to halt the Idaho Citizens Alliance's Proposition 1.

      The initiative would prohibit the state from granting minority status based on sexual orientation. It would ban gay marriages, and make it illegal for the state to promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle.

      It will be on the ballot during the November general election.

      Sands couldn't be reached to comment on whether she'll be moving to Idaho for the campaign.

      Jen Ray, vice chairman of the No On One Coalition, said Sands was selected from about a dozen candidates. As director of the Montana Women's Lobby, Sands has fought for abortion rights, government social programs and anti-stalking legislation and, unsuccessfully, against the state law outlawing sex between consenting adults of the same gender.

      Idaho Citizens Alliance spokesman Bill Proctor criticized Sands' appointment, questioning why Proposition 1 opponents didn't find a mainstream Idahoan to lead their effort rather than an ``extremist, radical, lesbian, feminist activist.''

 

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian