Going-to-the-Sun Road in Funding Limbo

By Beacon Staff

WEST GLACIER – Reconstruction of Glacier National Park’s historic Going-to-the-Sun Road will not be finished on schedule.

Park officials say the construction timetable has become a victim of increasing costs and an anticipated budget crunch.

Initially, planners hoped to rebuild the popular alpine route in about eight years, at a cost of $140 million. Last year, they revised both time and budget estimates upward, approaching 10 years and $300 million.

Now, park Superintendent Chas Cartwright says “it’s possible” they will complete the highest-elevation work in a decade, but the remaining reconstruction is on an indefinite schedule.

“It’s a very difficult environment for predicting what might happen,” he said.

Much hinges on the federal highway bill, which will be reauthorized in 2009. Already, House leadership has signaled that the number of earmarks in the bill will have to be slashed, perhaps even halved.

The current $286 billion bill included a $50 million earmark for Sun Road reconstruction, secured largely through the efforts of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

Highway engineers had long called for an overhaul of the route, warning that some sections of the mountainous road were in danger of “catastrophic failure.” The disrepair is blamed on decades of harsh winter weather, avalanches and a lack of basic maintenance.

Cartwright said he has begun carving out additional maintenance money from his base funds, and predicts future care of the road “will be noticeably better.”

That will not, however, help to fund reconstruction work already under way. With Kalispell-area residents seeking millions for a U.S. Highway 93 bypass and earmarks already on the chopping block, Cartwright is preparing for a future without significant funding.

He’s spent months with federal highway officials, finding considerable savings in the project, but still would need more than $100 million just to stay on track.

“The ability of the congressional delegation to do another add-on? I don’t know. I suppose it’s possible. But it’s certainly not something we can bank on,” Cartwright said.

On Friday, Baucus called the road a “national treasure and a real gem,” but warned that “the budget climate for funding projects like the Sun Road is different than in years past.”

The senator did, however, repeat his commitment “to doing my part in helping to secure funding” for future road repairs.