A thin red line drawn on aerial photographs of the nearly seven-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 89 north of Choteau shows where the highway would be reconstructed in 2023 under the state’s current schedule of road upgrades for the Fairfield to Dupuyer corridor.
About 35 people attended the Montana Department of Transportation’s three-hour informational open house during the first hour and a half on June 24 in Choteau-Teton Public Library.
The proposed improvements, labeled the “Choteau North” section, would be the next phase of the U.S. Highway 89 corridor improvements between Dupuyer and Fairfield that were started from the north in 2005. The city of Choteau is about halfway between the two towns. The 6.07-mile-long “Bynum South” section was completed in 2018 at a cost of $5.7 million.
The Choteau North section begins 0.7 miles north of the Choteau city limits near Foster Road and extends northwest to 5.4 miles southeast of Bynum.
“The funding could be in 2022, but the funding changes every year. We’ve got a little more work on the design, then we’ll work with landowners,” said Steve Prinzing, a MDT district preconstruction engineer based in Great Falls.
He said the redesign would improve safety, while minimizing impacts to wetlands. MDT has floodplains to consider. The highway would be raised two or three feet above grade in the section just north of Choteau’s city limits. “The intent is to keep the river where it’s at. It’s a little tougher than the Bynum project. There’s quite a few issues, hydrologically. The road will be shifted a bit, but we are staying in the right-of-way.”
Fliers and posters at the open house described the re-alignment plans, the project schedule and the new design including: widening U.S. Highway 89 from 24-feet wide to 32-feet wide — one 12-foot-wide lane in each direction with four-foot wide shoulders, improved alignment and side slopes for safety, resetting two historical markers and restoring scenic pullouts, updating signs, pavement markings and rumble strips with wider shoulders for non-motorized vehicles, drainage improvements and environmentally-friendly fencing where appropriate and feasible.
MDT staff including Prinzing, District Administrator Doug Wilmot, Kris Christensen, an engineering public relations employee, and a right-of-way specialist personally discussed the project with those attending and they took notes for follow up. The next steps include addressing right-of-way needs in the latter part of 2020 and letting the construction contract in fall of 2022. Construction is anticipated for 2023. “All dates are of course subject to change pending unforeseen developments,” the fact sheet said.
“Something’s got to be done,” said Ottis Bryan who, with his wife Sylvia, owns cropland on either side of the highway. The family homestead’s driveway connects with U.S. Highway 89 a few yards north of the sharp curve at Teton Canyon Road. “Cars go through the fences. I don’t like that,” he said. He would have preferred that the highway was designed to follow Claude Lane (12th Lane Northwest) to the feedlot a few miles north, but that alternative was scraped a long time ago, he said.
The new alignment through Bryan’s land follows the old highway for the most part but then it’s relocated through Bryan’s field to make a wider curve at its intersection with Teton Canyon Road.
That new alignment at the intersection marks the biggest proposed change in the Choteau North section. Instead of the nearly right-angle curve where now travelers must slow down to 30 miles per hour, the new alignment makes a wider curve to accommodate 70 mph traffic.
On the one hand, Bryan said, drivers who approach the intersection from the Teton Canyon Road will have better sight-distances on U.S. Highway 89 than now, but on the other hand, about 40 acres of land that he leases to Lane Yeager will be lost for farming.
Yeager pointed to the red line on the map and to the irrigated acreage where he raises alfalfa east of the highway. “The new highway is a third bigger, 48.2 feet, within a 160 foot right-of-way. I’m going to lose more than one year’s production, plus I lose what’s west of the new highway. I’ve got to have information on the timeline. Electric poles will have to be moved. My wheel line needs to be moved with approval from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.”
When construction starts, Yeager said he would lose as much as 40 acres permanently out of production. “Forever is a long time. It’s the unknown. I don’t really know how many years it will take after the day they start. I need the detailed alignment and I need to be informed when it’s changing.”
“We’re going to have lots of meetings to get it settled,” Bryan said.
“We’ve got an idea how the curve will come in,” Prinzing said of the new right-of-way at the Teton Canyon Road intersection.
Teton County Sheriff Keith VanSetten said that section of highway has no more wrecks than other places, but it will have a higher speed limit, 70 mph compared to the 30 mph at the curve now. One motorcyclist was left disabled when he lost control at the curve.
He added, “MDT did a wonderful job between Bynum and Dupuyer.”
“It’s good to get it done,” said Choteau Mayor Dan Lannen who also attended the open house. He endorsed fixing the corner at the Teton Canyon Road and extending the pavement four feet to better serve bicyclists. “Just get it done. The less construction, the more tourists,” he said.
Barb Bouma, speaking on behalf of the Stage Stop Inn north of town, said the improvements to the road would encourage more travelers to use U.S. Highway 89, from Glacier and on to Yellowstone. “With more traffic, there’s more opportunities to stop,” she said.
Speaking of the future, Prinzing said the Choteau South section is anticipated in 2024 and the Freezout Lake North section is beyond 2024. The redo in the city limits has to wait until the city has addressed its leaking water lines that run the length of Main Avenue, which is U.S. Highway 89 through town. “We can skip that section until Choteau has got it together,” Prinzing said.
Lannen said the city has started the planning process to fix the water lines under Main Avenue.
“We will look at comments, some things we can do and some we can’t,” Prinzing said.
The deadline is July 24 for comments on what may be missing, or on incorrect information that should be considered in the roadway redo. Email email@example.com or write to Steve Ackerlund, Public Involvement Consultant to MDT, 1600 Virginia Dale, Helena MT 59601. An overview of the project is at https://www.mdt.mt.gov/pubinvolve/choteau/.