SOMERS – In the weeks following an April fuel spill along Montana Highway 35, area residents renewed demands that truck traffic on the east shore be restricted. An informational meeting last week, though, with the Montana Department of Transportation proved possible solutions – and their ensuing implications – are significantly more complicated.
“After having lived here for 20 years, I found a lot of things happening on these roadways was different from what I had perceived,” MDT Director Jim Lynch, who ran a construction company in the Flathead before taking the state position, said.
On April 2 a tanker truck overturned and spilled 6,380 gallons of fuel on Montana 35 near Finley Point on a stretch of land close to Flathead Lake. The cause of the accident has not yet been released. The repercussions of the spill have been far reaching, forcing five families who lived nearby from their lakeshore homes indefinitely and requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to take over cleanup of chemicals that have migrated into the lake.
There’s been another important reverberation: revived complaints by some residents and business owners along the east shore that the narrow, two-lane road cannot support the amount of truck traffic it receives between Polson and Bigfork. Traffic, many residents say, should be diverted to the wider U.S. Highway 93, which runs along the west shore of the lake, in order to reduce accidents and protect residences and the lake.
Around 100 people attended the MDT’s information meeting in Somers last Wednesday, where the agency presented data and charts detailing everything from what the trucks are carrying to road access points, traffic destinations, crash data and more. The same meeting was held the following night in Polson.
“We really need to start at the same base to understand what’s going on with each of these particular highways,” Lynch said. “This information isn’t meant to be good or bad, one way or the other – it’s just what’s happening.”
While the roads were similar in many categories, the data drew some distinctions between the two. Montana 35, according to MDT counts, has 150 more access points – identified as any road or driveway that leads to one or more commercial or residential lots – than the west shore route. It also tends to run closer to the lake, with 9.2 miles within 100 meters or less of the highwater mark compared to just two miles on Highway 93.
Highway 93, though, actually had a higher truck crash rate than Montana 35 and an above average truck crash rate when compared to other like highways in the state. Both roads had an all-vehicle crash rate that was higher than the state average.
“The rates for truck crashes on this road (Montana 35) is actually very good – about one per million vehicle miles of travel,” Lynch said. “We do have a problem on Highway 93 that we may not have elsewhere in the state.”
And, when MDT drove the same truck carrying a 58,000-pound load up the west and east shores to Columbia Falls, Highway 93 proved the less efficient route, adding 15 miles, 25 minutes and a little more than six gallons of gas to the trip. It’s a cost difference that would be unfair for truckers to bear, Barry “Spook” Stang, executive director of the Montana Motor Carriers Association, said, and a main reason the trucking industry opposes more restrictions on Montana 35.
“I think it’s one of the tools in our toolbox which we should be allowed to use,” Stang said. “It’s the most efficient route from Missoula to Columbia Falls and, in my mind, a safer route.”
Forcing trucks carrying hazardous material onto Highway 93, Stang said, would take those materials through more populous areas, including downtown Kalispell. The steeper grades on the west shore are also costly and dangerous, especially in the winter.
Members of the trucking industry noted another surprising side effect, saying restrictions on the east shore would increase the region’s overall number of trucks.
Truck drivers are restricted to a certain number of driving hours each day. The Montana 35 route allows enough time for drivers to legally make two roundtrips from Columbia Falls to Missoula in a day, Neil Hanson, owner of Hanson Trucking Inc., said. The extra time required to take Highway 93 would limit each driver to only one roundtrip per day, meaning the company would need more trucks and more drivers to carry the same loads.
Trucking representatives emphasized that the safety of the road was important to them as well, that they wanted to work with the community and encouraged residents to report careless truck drivers. “We, of course, want safety, too,” Stang said. “But, frankly, pushing trucks off to another road is not the best way to ensure that, and trucks aren’t going to go away – they’re a necessity in Montana.”
Truck travel on both highways is already somewhat restricted, with hourly and weekend limits. After taking public comment, there will be a second round of MDT meetings before anything is proposed. Based on public comments, Lynch can make a recommendation to the Federal Highway Administration, which ultimately has jurisdiction over the stretch of highway.
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