For residents and businesses of the Bitterroot Valley, the battle over the configuration of U.S. Highway 93 has been at least eight long years of public hearings, environmental impact statements, lawsuits and appeals.
But with the Nov. 30 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the Montana Department of Transportation’s (MDT) Highway 93 project, it appeared all but certain that the final obstacle had been cleared for widening a 40-mile stretch of U.S. 93 between Lolo and Hamilton into a four-lane, undivided highway.
But the bulldozers aren’t rolling just yet. Or so say smart-growth advocates with the newly formed “93 Community Express,” a campaign launched by Missoula activists intent on re-opening public discussion on the Bitterroot Valley’s only north-south route.
“People think that we’re getting these improvements and that [Highway 93] is going to be safer,” says 93 Community Express coordinator Bob Giordano. “What we’re trying to say is, let’s not close the book on this. Let’s explore all avenues.”
Looking to kindle a new “people-to-people approach,” Giordano and Aaron Nicolarsen are hoping to fill a bus with activists on Saturday, Jan. 15 for a free, day-long “field trip” along Highway 93. The bus, scheduled to leave at noon from Circle Square in Missoula, will drive to Hamilton and back, stopping along the way for various discussions on alternatives to MDT’s project. The tour will include a free lunch and return to Missoula by 5 p.m. (Call 243-BELL for more info.)
Giordano and Nicolarsen can list at least 10 concerns that they say arise whenever they discuss the proposed design with residents, including safety, roadway capacity, sprawl, air pollution, landscape and wildlife, aesthetics, and so on.
If this week’s field trip seems like an eleventh-hour gambit to prevent the inevitable—MDT plans to begin construction on the first leg of the project between Lolo and Florence in four to six weeks—they point out that there’s still plenty of time to redirect the remainder of the project.
“Sixty percent of the traffic on that road comes to Missoula,” Giordano says. “And we have not had an official voice in this process. The other communities in the Bitterroot have focus groups and they have done amazing work. Missoula should probably have its own focus group.”
“If [93 Community Express] can get a real vocal thing coming out of Missoula, it could make a big difference, because Missoula was never taken into consideration during the [Environmental Impact Statement] procedure,” says Peter Moore of the Highway 93 Coalition for Responsible Planning, a plaintiff in the failed lawsuit against MDT. “They never really took into account any the effects that widening this highway will have on Missoula. But it’s going to have a substantial effect.”