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POLSON - Because of concerns that funding is inadequate, a study on the route U.S. Highway 93 will eventually take through or around Polson has again been delayed.

Participants at an intergovernmental meeting last week said the $80,000 they have won't cover the cost of everything they want in the study, and they may seek additional funding from Congress to pay for a more detailed analysis.

Joe Hovenkotter, an attorney for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said the Tribal Council doubted the bare-bones study proposed by WGM Group of Missoula would do much to bring agreement on the highway alignment.

Five governments - city, county, state, tribal and federal - must agree on the alignment of the rebuilt highway before the design can take shape and right-of-way acquisition can begin.

Last month, WGM proposed a $170,000 study, which the five governments rejected because it far exceeded the money available. The revised $80,000 proposal didn't win any points either.

"I don't think it advances the decision-making process at all," Hovenkotter said at a meeting of local government representatives who are preparing to contract for the study.

Lake County Commissioner Mike Hutchin, who represents the county on the transportation planning committee, agreed the $80,000 plan would not do much to help understand trade-offs in alignment options.

Polson City Council member Mike Maddy said that while the pared-down study may not accomplish all the committee's goals, any transportation study is better than none and it could be useful for city planners.

A key component sought by local and tribal governments was a detailed analysis of the effects a bypass route or a straight route through town that included a "couplet" alignment would have on local businesses. The analysis would have included possible mitigation measures.

But that analysis was dropped from the study proposal this month because of cost constraints.

Montana Department of Transportation representatives, who attended the meeting by teleconference Wednesday, said no money is available for a more elaborate study because of the uncertainties of long-term federal transportation appropriations in an election year.

MDOT had previously offered to pay $40,000 toward the study's cost.

Hovenkotter then suggested approaching Congress, through Montana's delegation, for special funds for the transportation plan and possibly for an accelerated analysis.

MDOT representatives agreed that an earmarked congressional appropriation for Polson's transportation needs was possible, and said they would lend state support if the tribes and local governments pursue that option.

Lobbying for special transportation funding has ample precedent. Kalispell successfully lobbied for millions in funds for the Highway 93 reconstruction project through that community.

Hovenkotter said he would talk with Rep. Dennis Rehberg's office and report back by the March 24 meeting.

Until then, negotiations with WGM Group are on hold.

The route through Polson is the last portion of the Highway 93 project between Evaro and Polson to get planners' attention.

A supplemental environmental impact statement on the route between Ronan to just north of St. Ignatius is due out next year. The design for segments of the highway between Evaro and St. Ignatius and Ronan and Pablo is about finished under an accelerated schedule approved by the federal government a year ago. Construction is set to begin on a stretch near Arlee next spring.

But design and construction of the highway through or around Polson is far in the future. No time line has been set to begin the environmental analysis needed for the route, and no money is available to pay for it.

Reporter John Stromnes can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at jstromnes@missoulian.com

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