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Montana’s Route 93

For years, US-93, located north of Missoula in western Montana, saw an increase in traffic fatalities and injuries on a heavily traveled stretch heading toward Glacier National Park.

To address concerns, the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) proposed to widen a 56-mile segment from two lanes to a five-lane undivided highway. This segment runs through the Flathead Indian Reservation, including territory in the heart of the Rocky Mountains – a popular recreational destination – and the Ninepipe Wetlands Area, which supports unique and fragile species of wildlife. 

Thanks to the National Environmental Policy Act, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Government, and citizen groups had the opportunity to participate in the project design process. Under NEPA, 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.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal government and grassroots citizen groups such as Flathead Resource Organization (FRO) challenged 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).

In essence, by forcing MDT to carry out an environmental review, tribal members and concerned citizens made MDT look for creative solutions and consider alternatives for the highway that could negatively affect safety, environmental issues, and lack of protection for tribal culture and family farms.

Amanda Hardy, research ecologist at the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University, was 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,” she added.

The final design successfully addressed all safety, environmental, and cultural concerns. Slow curves in the roadway were planned along the most scenic areas to discourage speeding and follow the contour of the land. One mile of the highway was relocated around the Ninepipe Wetlands area and wildlife crossings and fencing were added at the request of the Tribes to make the roads safer for commuters and wildlife.

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