MDT Won’t Back Montana Highway 35 Truck Ban For Now

By Beacon Staff

POLSON – A highway that winds along the east shore of Flathead Lake can handle truck traffic, despite resident complaints after a nearly 6,000-gallon fuel spill last spring, the state Transportation Department has decided.

Director Jim Lynch said some steps have been taken and more are being considered to improve traffic safety on Montana Highway 35, which runs along the east shore of Flathead Lake, but banning trucks from the stretch of road will not be one of them at this time. Environmental risks must still be assessed, and Lynch wants to return to the area for public meetings to explain all the data his department has compiled before announcing a final decision.

Critics aren’t convinced the state is doing all it can to prevent further crashes.

“The problems with Highway 35 are not going to go away,” said Don Schwennessen, who serves on the Transportation Department focus group that is looking into options involving truck traffic on the highway. “It’s a narrow, winding, dangerous road where if you screw up, you’re dead meat.”

Calls for banning some or all big rigs on the road, and requiring them to travel on U.S. Highway 93 on the west side of the lake, were renewed after a gasoline tanker drifted off the road and overturned last April.

The lake was not full at the time and no fuel spilled into the lake, however the spill forced five families out of their homes and cabins and a multimillion-dollar cleanup is still ongoing.

Lynch said one of the major criticisms of allowing trucks on Highway 35 was that some semi tractor-trailers pulling pup trailers could not successfully negotiate the road without straying outside the lines. Lynch said a video survey proved that to be unfounded.

“They can stay within the lines,” Lynch said. “We didn’t see a lot of crossing of either the center or shoulder lines. I did see some drift closer to the center line on corners where there was no oncoming traffic, but for the most part, they stayed within their lanes.”

The department is considering other adjustments on the 30-mile stretch of road, including making the entire east shore a no-passing zone and adding turnout areas and rumble strips. The posted 50 mph speed limit will not change, Lynch said.

The department has redirected to U.S. 93 loads over 10 1/2 feet wide — typically mobile homes, large boats and industrial equipment — that aren’t scheduled to be delivered along Highway 35. The Montana Highway Patrol has also increased its presence along the east shore, Lynch said.

U.S. 93 was built farther from the lake and is a longer route than Highway 35.

Harry Hyatt, another member of the focus group, said Highway 35 isn’t built for big trucks.

“It’s too small and too crowded,” Hyatt said. “They’re trading public safety and the environment for profit and greed,” if trucks aren’t banned on the highway.

Related: Major Cleanup Work Set to Begin at Fuel Spill Site
Related: Truckers: Restricting MT 35 Traffic Unfair, Unsafe
Related: Fuel Spill Prompts Truck Traffic Scrutiny

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.