For a few years now, local residents have been trying to get relief in the form of asphalt. But now, as Missoula County and the U.S. Forest Service combine forces to pave more than half of the two mile road, folks who live in the area are opposing the idea; they say that plans to leave a portion of their street unpaved will only make the problems worse.
"We feel it should be done all at once or not at all, or else it would just exacerbate the problems," says Helen Orendain, a member of the Blue Mountain Road Citizens Oversight Committee.
Currently, the two-mile stretch of Blue Mountain Road, which meanders through the lush riparian area of the Bitterroot River, linking Highway 93 to the Big Flat area and providing access to the Blue Mountain National Recreation Area, is gravel. If all goes as the county plans, only a little more than half of the road will get paved at a cost of half a million dollars.
Members of the oversight committee say the paving will increase traffic, but with half the road still dirt, air pollution problems will only be exacerbated. They have sent letters to the Montana congressional delegation protesting the fact that federal funds are being used to build a road they say will only increase air pollution problems. The group is asking Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns, and Rep. Rick Hill to help them find additional sources of funding so the whole road can be completed.
"It's not that we don't want it paved. We just can't accept the fact that they are only paving a portion," says Bruce Fowler, an oversight committee member.
According to County Surveyor Horace Brown, the Forest Service will provide up to $264,000 toward the $500,000 total cost, while the county will come up with the rest by providing the engineering and construction crews. The cost of paving the last mile, however, is estimated at close to $1 million because of an irrigation ditch that runs alongside the road that would have to be pushed underground. It's a price tag that's too rich for the county's already strained budget, says Brown.
Brown also takes exception to the idea that the road should be paved all at once or not at all: "I don't agree with that. We've been working on this project since 1989. It's been at public hearings. It was part of the zoning for O'Brien Creek. They were very aware that this was going to happen and there wasn't the money to do the whole road."
Brown says he tried unsuccessfully last year to have the road included in a federal program called CMAQ (Congested Mitigation Air Quality) that provides funds to communities to help mitigate air pollution problems; this might have helped pay for the last mile of pavement. But it turns out that the road is on the wrong side of the river to be covered by CMAQ money—the approved zone includes the eastern side of the Bitterroot River, but not the western side.
About the only way to get the entire road paved now, Brown says, is for the nearby residents to foot the $1 million bill themselves through a rural special improvement district.
The oversight committee members balk at this idea. "You can't burden a few houses with $1 million," says Fowler. "Nobody has said we aren't willing to pay our fair share. We're saying we shouldn't be made responsible for this. We're saying, ‘That's unacceptable -- you're going to have to help us.'"
The committee claims it's not even necessary to cover the ditch. It doesn't need to be a shrine, says Orendain, it just needs to be safe.
County Commissioner Michael Kennedy agrees with Brown that it would be better to pave part of the road then not at all; to hesitate, he says, would be to risk losing the Forest Service's contribution.
There are other ways of handling the irrigation ditch problem, Kennedy says, that have not yet been fully explored. There are more than 130 landowners in the Big Flat area that rely on the ditch for water. Kennedy says he is working on a plan that would get the landowners to drill wells and tap into the aquifer instead of relying on the ditch.
Although he admits the idea could take years, he says "You have to ask if you can legitimately spend $1 million when there is a better solution."
"The Kennedy plan is well intentioned," says Orendain, "but we don't see it going anywhere." The issue of water rights makes the plan complicated and unrealistic, she says.
Calling the area a "recreational Mecca," the oversight committee would ideally like to see the road turned into a scenic parkway in which turnouts, bike and pedestrian trails and arches at each end of the road are installed.
"We realize that some of these things can't be done all at once, but we should be looking at this as an overall picture," says Fowler.
Kennedy believes that eventually turning the road into a scenic parkway would be an excellent and doable idea. "This could be a watershed for other projects in the county," he says. "If people go out there and say ‘this is a good thing' then we may get more Blue Mountain Roads and fewer North Reserves."
The dust kicked up by cars on this unpaved section of Blue Mountain Road contributes to Missoula's air quality problems, but nearby residents say that a plan to lay asphalt on half the street will only make things worse. Photo by Jeff Powers.