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Stop Sprawl
The Road to Better Transportation Projects

Montana, US-93: Public Involvement Prompts Creative Solutions

The Mission and Salsish Mountains rise above US- 93.
The Mission and Salsish Mountains rise above US- 93. The view became a new priority in highway design.
US-93, north of Missoula in western Montana, faces increased congestion from traffic heading toward Glacier National Park. The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) proposed to take a 56-mile, two-lane segment of Route 93 and change it into a five-lane, undivided highway.

This segment runs through the unique cultural landscape of the Flathead Indian Reservation, including territory in the heart of the Rocky Mountain ecosystem and the Ninepipe Wetlands Area, an ecosystem with thousands of kettle ponds supporting unique and fragile species of wildlife.

Under NEPA's rules, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal government and grassroots citizen groups such as Flathead Resource Organization (FRO) we re able to challenge MDT — first, on the validity of the initial Environmental Assessment (which evaluated only a seven-mile stretch of the 56-mile project) and later on the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Federal agencies are required to make and evaluate EIS reports in order to determine the consequences of a proposed action, analyze action alternatives, and share the results with other agencies and the public.

By forcing MDT to do an EIS, tribal members and citizens made MDT look for creative solutions and consider alternatives for the highway, which could negatively affect safety, environmental issues, and lack of protection for tribal culture and family farms. A Federal Highway Administration decision stipulating that the tribes and MDT must agree on the project design prompted them to hire landscape architect Jim Sipes of Jones & Jones (a firm based out of Seattle, Washington).

Sipes helped create a final design agreed to by all government entities involved. Sipes’s design addressed safety, environmental, and cultural concerns about sprawl. Slow curves in the roadway are planned along the most scenic areas of the route to discourage speeding and follow the contour of the land. One mile of the highway will be relocated around the Ninepipe Wetlands area. Additionally, an unprecedented 42 wildlife crossings and wildlife fencing will be added at the request of the Tribes to reduce harm to area wildlife.

Amanda Hardy, research ecologist at the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University, is involved with the design and evaluation of the wildlife crossings. She said NEPA allowed "the public and agencies an opportunity to comment" so alternatives like these could be pursued.

"US-93 became a project dramatically different than what the DOT had ever done," said Sipes. "NEPA gave us more weight so our voices could be heard — without it, US 93 would have been a standard four-lane highway with destructive impacts to the community," he added.

Photo courtesy Jim Sipes; used with permission.

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