HUNGRY HORSE – Larry Mackin drives U.S. Highway 2 through Bad Rock Canyon twice a day. He can’t even begin to count the number of times he’s almost had an accident on the narrow, windy stretch of road.
“It’s a tough road to drive everyday,” he said. “I know my stress level goes up every time.”
Mackin attended a meeting with the Montana Department of Transportation and engineers from DOWL HKM on April 10 to talk about possible road improvements in the canyon. The two-mile stretch of road between Columbia Heights and Hungry Horse has been the subject of an extensive study by MDT and its contractor, identifying possible improvements. The meeting, held at the U.S. Forest Service ranger station, was an opportunity to involve the people who travel it most.
According to MDT, the section of road along the Flathead River has been the site of 153 automobile accidents in the last decade, six of which have resulted in eight fatalities.
Sarah Nicolai, project manager for DOWL HKM in Helena, said various sections of the road fail to meet current highway standards, including blind curves and hills that are too steep. A power point she presented during the meeting also called the South Fork Flathead River Bridge, located at the east end of the section of roadway under review, as “functionally obsolete” and “structurally deficient.” Almost every possible improvement option presented by Nicolai includes replacing the bridge.
But Nicolai said working on the road through that area would be extremely complicated, due to the tight confines of the canyon and the area’s historical significance. The canyon and specifically the rock outcroppings to the south of the road are considered culturally important to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
“It’s challenging,” Nicolai said. “There are so many constraints, based on physical boundaries like the river and the park, and then there’s cultural and environmental boundaries.”
Nicolai presented multiple options, including keeping U.S. 2 on or near its current right-of-way, and other more drastic changes, such as diverting the road up and over the north face of Columbia Mountain; building a tunnel through the mountain to the south; and moving the road across the river.
“We’re still at the early stages and nothing is set in stone at this point,” Nicolai said. “Tonight’s meeting was to present options to the community and see if we are on the right track.”
Mackin said he was open to almost any option to improve the road through Bad Rock Canyon, as long as something is done. During the meeting he suggested engineers should widen the road through by removing some of the rock, adding that part of the rock face was removed when the road was first constructed.
“To hell with the rock outcrop,” he said. “I don’t care about the history, to me it’s about people’s safety … If you’re more concerned about the rock than the people, there’s a problem.”
But Loretta Byrd of Martin City said preserving the canyon is important, even after being involved in a head-on collision in 2007 on the road.
“From day one my family has loved that stretch of highway as it is,” Byrd said. “We want something to protect the history and environment.”
At the meeting, Byrd said MDT should slow traffic down, suggesting rumble strips or more signage.
“I think the fact that they had this meeting here in Hungry Horse is fantastic,” she said. “It shows that they care about what people have to say.”
But even if MDT is meeting with locals about what to do about the road, construction could be years away. The next step will be to issue a draft of the road study in late May and another public meeting will be held over the summer. A final report is expected by fall with recommendations on how to improve the highway. After that, MDT officials said road improvements would all depend on funding.
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