By Michael Howell
Officials from the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) came to Hamilton last week seeking public comment on a plan to concrete over most of the medians located in the highway from Lolo to Hamilton. Part of the Highway 93 improvement project involved developing roadside amenities at the various communities along the highway, including placement of trees and shrubs along the roadside and in the highway medians. Community Focus Groups were formed and the amenities, including the vegetated medians, were designed. The state had the amenities installed and contracted with the County for maintenance. The County Commissioners reluctantly accepted the responsibility on the condition that volunteers from each community would participate in the maintenance.
But things did not go well. The vegetation, especially in the medians, began to die. The reasons, according to Commissioner J. R. Iman, were many. He attributed it to the use of road salt in the winter, lack of irrigation, the wrong kind of vegetation, and the lack of volunteer help in weeding.
Iman told the state officials at the meeting that the County was no longer going to deal with the medians and was turning over the maintenance responsibilities to the state.
“We continue our commitment to everything except the center of the road,” said Iman. He said the county signed onto the contract as a last resort believing that the community groups would take on the responsibilities, but now it was clear that having private individuals work in the middle of the highway was not acceptable from a safety point of view.
Iman called the plan for vegetated medians a mistake, but said it was only one small part of a very successful project overall. He said the County was still completely committed to keeping up the roadside vegetation that was installed but that they would no longer be involved in maintaining the medians.
“Outside the medians,” he said, “we have tremendous dedication. Inside the medians we have a tremendous liability.” He said it was just unacceptable to have private citizens in the middle of the roadway and the County Weed District employees simply cannot handle the task.
Paul Grant, MDT Public Involvement Coordinator, said that the agency, in response to many complaints about the dead vegetation and weeds growing in the medians, decided that it should act. Based on the availability of about $450,000 in left over funds from the fiscal year, a plan was made to concrete over the medians. Contracts were let for that project and the County went into the medians at Stevensville and removed the vegetation and the irrigation system in the medians in anticipation of the paving project.
Subsequent public outcry to keep the vegetation in the medians led the state to hold the recent meeting and seek public input on the project.
At the meeting Commissioner Iman noted that the exception to the systematic failures in the medians was at Victor and there were no plans to concrete those medians. He said they are wider medians, reducing the safety hazard for workers, and that the Victor community had passed a levy to pay for professional upkeep.
Several members of the public spoke in favor of keeping all the medians vegetated. Members of the highway Focus Groups spoke passionately about the years of public effort that went into the design.
Jean Atthowe, who participated in the Stevensville Focus Group, gave a detailed account of the whole 20-year history of the project. She recounted the research that went into the design and noted that the vegetated medians were chosen for their traffic calming effect. She said research shows that vehicles slow down when they encounter vegetation in the medians. She urged the state to reconsider the concreting project.
Roger DeHaan, who participated in the Victor Focus Group, said that part of the success in Victor was due to the passing of a local levy to support maintenance of the amenities. He said that the $450,000 that MDT is using to concrete the medians could go a long way in funding a long term maintenance program.
Missoula Maintenance Chief Jack May said that the department had met with the Florence and Stevensville communities and was just trying to do what those communities wanted. He said they chose the pattern and color of the concrete.
Elloie Jeter, from Florence, disagreed. She said that they were not asked to consider any options. She said they were told that the medians were going to be concreted and were asked to choose the pattern and the color, so they did. She urged the department to consider other options even if it was only some sort of knock-down or soft sculptures that would not present a safety hazard.
Gene Mim Mack, Mayor of Stevensville, agreed with Jeter. He said the Stevensville group was not presented with any options or asked to come up with any.
“We were just told the medians were going to be concreted and that the contract had been let and it was a done deal,” he said. He called it disingenuous on the part of the County and the state to claim otherwise.
“I question the commitment of the MDT and the County,” he said. “I question the process and the commitment to make it succeed.
Gary Leese, Chairman of the Ravalli County Park Board, said, “It’s time for the County to step up to the plate and take on their responsibilities.”
It is still unclear when the County Commissioners decided to give up on their responsibilities in the medians and when the decision to let the contracts for concreting the medians was made.
Asked when the Board of Commissioners decided to quit the maintenance, Iman said, “When we went in at Stevensville and removed the vegetation and took out the irrigation system from the medians.”
According to Jim Shockley, an attorney who participated in the Victor Focus Group, he was told by MDT’s attorney that the County Commissioners had asked the state to concrete the medians as a way to deal with the maintenance issues.
Some people spoke in favor of concreting the medians. Ravalli County Weed District Coordinator Kellieann Morris said that her department, which has only a few employees, spent over 400 hours this year on maintenance of the medians. She said the work was very dangerous and that she herself could have been hit by a car when she fell into the roadway. She said the County Weed District was obligated to take care of noxious weeds, not obnoxious weeds. She showed slides illustrating the huge number and large size of the many weeds growing in the median. She said that her staff could not handle the task and that using volunteers was a safety hazard.
A former state road maintenance employee also testified to the danger of working in medians and said he came close to being killed three times while working in the roadway with all the required safety precautions.
MDT Maintenance Administrator Jon Swartz said that the department would consider the public comment and either go ahead with the project and concrete the medians, modify the contract in some fashion, or simply drop it. Public comment on the project will be accepted through today, Wednesday, July 3, 2013. Comments may be sent to Jack May, Missoula Division Maintenance Chief, at the Montana Department of Transportation, Missoula District Office, P.O. Box 7039, Missoula MT 59807; e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org; faxed to 406-523-5801; or submitted on-line at www.mdt.gov/mdt/comment_form.shtml.