By Michael Howell
The Ravalli County Commissioners held a meeting on May 29 “to discuss how the decision was made to concrete the mediums of Highway 93 over as well as possible decision to work with community members for landscaping amenities.” As of yet it is still unclear how the decision was made or whether community members still have a chance to have landscaping of some sort in the medians.
According to Commissioner J. R. Iman, it is highly unlikely that the paving over of the medians on the highway at Stevensville can be stopped. He said at the meeting that the state had already let the contracts for the paving and that the existing plants in the medians at Stevensville had been removed and the drip irrigation system in the medians was “compromised” in the process.
Iman explained that originally the county signed off on the maintenance of the landscaping in the medians and on the roadsides in the belief that community organizations would take on the work as volunteers. He said the medians in Lolo were the first to fail and that the state had imposed a levy against the Lolo Park District to pay for the maintenance. Iman said that over the next four years we saw the failure of the landscaping in the medians down the valley, except in Victor, where the professional installation contract still covers maintenance.
Iman said the primary problem with the arrangement at this point is the danger involved with volunteers working in the middle of the highway. The state is willing to provide traffic control for volunteer workers between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays, he said, but this doesn’t work well with volunteers. Iman said that although the county accepted responsibility to do the maintenance, the state has ultimate authority on the management of the area between the driving lanes. He said that contracts had already been let by the state to concrete the medians in Lolo, Florence, Stevensville, Woodside and Hamilton. Viable plants will be re-planted in the roadside areas. He said no changes were being contemplated at Victor for a number of reasons, one being that the medians are 240 yards long and 40 feet wide and thus are not such a safety hazard as the others which are very narrow.
Commissioner Suzy Foss said that her first thought when she saw the medians was, “This is crazy. Someone’s going to get killed.” She called it a beautiful idea but said it never seemed practical.
Iman said that he would take questions but that at this time the bottom line is that the state has determined that it is unsafe to have private individuals working in the medians.
Joan Prather, who participated on the Stevensville Focus Group, said that she was aware of the problems with the landscaping at the medians. She said it was because they were not being watered. She said Focus Group members were of the opinion that the maintenance of the medians should be contracted out locally. She said they realized that volunteer service was not dependable in the long term and that there should be an institutional solution that didn’t depend on any individual volunteer. She urged the Commissioners to contract for local maintenance.
Local attorney Jim Shockley, who served on the Victor Focus Group and the wider all-valley group, said that the highway improvements were in the works for close to 20 years with lots of public involvement.
“I’m not here to say the state is wrong,” said Shockley. “I’m here to say the state hasn’t followed the process. The policy here is very, very poor. We put 20 years into deciding what to do with this damn road. Twenty years. And then, without notice that I am aware of, the state says it’s not working, we are going to pave it. I think that’s bad faith.” He went on to say that a Record of Decision on a federally funded project could not be altered without a hearings process.
Shockley also stated that MDT went to the legislature and asked for funding to deal with the medians across the state and was denied. He called the state’s funding of the paving project an “end run” on the legislature. He also noted that the $450,000 proposed to be spent on the paving project could go a long way in providing maintenance for landscaping instead. He asked the commissioners to sponsor a public meeting about the issue and to find out why the state did not sponsor any.
Jean Atthowe, who served on the Stevensville Focus Group, spoke about the group’s long term and involved effort and research that went into the highway design, including wildlife underpasses and walkways, to mitigate the impact of all the tarmac. She said that the ISTEA act had changed highway construction to a full transportation model that considered all aspects of the travel corridor including pedestrian traffic.
“The medians were part of that process,” she said. “So if we have problems with maintaining them, we have to go back to the research that led us to ask for it and we need to go back to the process that got us here… the process that reviews what we asked for, how we got it, and why we should keep it.”
Stevensville Mayor Gene Mim Mack said that the first time he heard about the change it was presented as a done deal. He called the changes significant.
“Where did the public have a say in this process?” he asked. He said that the resurrection of the public process could help deal with the difficulties being faced and might provide other options than paving.
Atthowe said, “We are asking you commissioners to work with us and go back and review the situation and come up with some answers.”
Linda Dworak, a member of the Stevensville Focus Group who has been involved in the Highway 93 improvement project since 1994, said, “The ugly medians are a symptom of bigger problems with the process. Paving them over is simply covering up the problem.” She praised MDT’s work force and the job they do extensively, but she said that the process they followed allowed significant participation by the public in urban areas but not in rural areas like the Bitterroot. She asked the commissioners to re-visit the issue and allow more public input.
Commissioner Foss said, “Submit your concerns, and I’m sure we’ll have a follow up.”
A second meeting was scheduled last week by the commissioners to discuss and possibly decide to send a letter in support of concreting the medians to MDT. That meeting was cancelled, however. According to Commission Chairman Jeff Burrows, the meeting was cancelled because the state had already let the contract for paving the medians, making a letter in support a moot exercise.
Following the cancellation of that meeting, Iman told the Bitterroot Star that the state plans to begin work on concreting the medians on June 16 and finish by July 28. He said the work would begin at Lolo and continue south towards Hamilton. He said the project would proceed as far as the funding lasts so the viable trees at Woodside and Hamilton would not be removed until the paving work was imminent. He said that it was not practical to expect to stop the paving at Stevensville now that the vegetation had been removed and the drip irrigation compromised.
Iman said the state has authority over the highway maintenance and that the safety concerns were paramount over aesthetics. He said that salt on the highway was a significant part of the failure of the landscaping and that he had found no good options. Overall, he said, it was a small change and a great gain considering the roadside amenities that are going into place. He said the county’s commitment to the roadside landscaping was still strong.
Jim Shockley said that in his conversations with MDT’s legal department he was told that the county had requested the paving option. Shockley said, “My problem is not with the decision itself. Maybe it will turn out to be a good decision. My problem is with the process.” He said the public was involved for 20 years in the process that led to the decision to place the amenities in the medians and it should go back before the public if the decision is going to be altered so significantly.
Phone calls to MDT’s legal and maintenance departments by the Bitterroot Star last week went unanswered.