WILLISTON, N.D. - Drivers encounter a dusty mess of tangled detours, reduced speed signs, deafening construction equipment and orange-clad workers along U.S. 2 this summer. But many agree the growing pains will be well worth it when the road becomes four lanes between here and Minot.
The state Transportation Department is working under the motto "Across the State in 2008," meaning it will finish the four-lane work on U.S. 2 by then, so residents can drive a four-lane highway across the state's northern tier from Williston to Grand Forks. The total project is estimated to cost more than $100 million in state and federal money.
Meanwhile, supporters of the expansion of U.S. 2 in Montana haven't given up the fight, and are looking to North Dakota for cooperation.
One $8.2 million portion of the highway in North Dakota is to be finished this fall. Four lanes already are finished between Ray and Tioga.
Between the Tioga junction and nine miles east of Stanley, three sets of paving projects are in the works.
"They are paving from Stanley and going west," said Walt Peterson, the district engineer for Transportation Department's Williston office.
"They've almost completed 19 miles of paving west of Stanley. Then, they will pave at Stanley going east soon," he said.
"On both the paving and grading jobs, there are crossovers that move the traffic around the areas where we are doing work on the old roadway - alignment work and culvert replacement. Those areas are signed and have reduced traffic speeds," Peterson said. "We have one on each job.
"The only other disruption to traffic is that we have trucks entering or exiting the roadway that are hauling materials. These have lower speeds and flag people to stop traffic when trucks are entering," he said.
Grading work from nine miles east of Stanley to U.S. 52, 10 miles east of Berthold, will be bid out next year in three different projects, Peterson said. That means 33 more miles will be graded in 2007.
Peterson said motorists have basically been cooperative with the speed reductions. He asks people to watch for the signs.
"We have not had any major problems. The North Dakota Highway Patrol is monitoring the speed of cars," he said.
"We just remind people there is a lot of traffic in the area, and the dust blowing around can impair visibility."
In Montana, expanding U.S. 2 to four lanes has been a highly contentious and emotional topic that has sparked debate among the state's top officials.
In 2001, the Legislature passed a bill that tried to direct federal highway money to widening U.S. 2, bypassing the current highway funding formula that relies on traffic counts.
But in 2004, former Transportation Director Dave Galt said adding passing lanes to some spots along the roadway was less expensive, and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would not issue permits for a four-lane project that would affect wetlands along the route.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Havre native, has been more receptive to the project.
Supporters say a four-lane is key to safety and the economic future of the Hi-Line, especially in eastern Montana. Opponents say the project is too expensive.
But state Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, R-Glasgow, and other backers haven't given up. Earlier this summer, Kitzenberg organized a caravan across the northern tier of the state to re-ignite interest in the effort.
"We got a lot of good, positive reaction," he said Saturday. "From what I heard of the testimony, it really sounds that the people are behind it."
The state Transportation Department is working on a "trend study" to see what economic effect a four-lane highway would bring if U.S. 2 were widened from Culbertson east to North Dakota, and Montana 16 were widened from Culbertson north to the Port of Raymond on the Canadian border.
The study also looks at possible industries that could accompany the project, Kitzenberg said.
"You don't get new industry with a widened two-lane," he said. "You get it with a four-lane, and that's why we've been so insistent about this."
Kitzenberg stressed that Montana needs to act quickly if it wants cooperation from North Dakota.
"The North Dakota governor has said that if we start something on our side of the border, that he will continue construction from Williston to the state line," Kitzenberg said. "It's really important that we do something there to keep North Dakota from going south (to Interstate 94). Our worst fear is that we'd be left high and dry."
North Dakota has made more progress on U.S. 2 than Montana partly because of how it has financed the project, he said.
"They've made it a priority item, and they've used a lot of state funding," Kitzenberg said. "Our main highway has been Highway 93. It's a matter of priorities."
However, Kitzenberg said momentum is building in Montana, adding that the last federal highway bill contained millions to study the feasibility of expanding portions of U.S. 2 and Highway 16 to four lanes.
"We've been working on this for years now," he said. "I'd like to in my lifetime see a section done."
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