By Michael Howell
It’s been a long time coming to completion, but the Highway 93 improvement project is something that the Bitterroot Valley and Montana Department of Transportation can be proud of, according to County Commissioner J.R. Iman, who was closely involved with the project since its inception.
Iman, who attended the dedication ceremony of the new improvements last week, said the project not only won a state award for its engineering in Montana but has become the model for other projects across the state.
“This is the first highway corridor in Montana to get long distance bike paths and significant traffic changes at the communities it passes through,” said Iman. He said the model was successfully used in the Flathead Valley since then.
“It was a huge undertaking,” said Iman. He said in the beginning the estimated cost of the project was about $45 million and it was expected to be completed in 10 years. But the public involvement process, which consisted of Community Action Committees established in each community to make design proposals, took longer than expected and added amenities to the project that were costly as well. The cost ballooned to $135 million and it took 20 years to complete, or almost complete, as some final details are still being worked out.
Iman said that, at the start, there were no wildlife crossings in the design with associated high fencing, nor was there a bike path envisioned, nor landscaping through the communities along the highway. All of these amenities were added through the long and laborious process of including the public at the design stage.
It was a steep learning curve for everyone, according to Iman, and some details were laboriously worked out as the project was worked on section by section. One thing that was not clear in the beginning, for instance, was who would take care of the landscaping that was being installed along the roadside and down the middle of the road. Iman said that one thing currently being considered is to involve adjacent landowners in a contract to maintain the roadside along their property similar to the kind of contractual agreement made between the county and landowners for control of weeds in the right-of-way. Iman said a few contracts have already been made and more are in the works.
According to Iman, a few other details are still being worked out. The speed limit signs at Victor, for instance, may be spread out a little more and other adjustments may be made.