Roberts group take issue with MDT plans

Alastair Baker
News Editor
Thursday, March 5, 2020
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Courtesy RISC
Above, the present design idea by MDT for Highway 212 through Roberts and below the concept by the Roberts HWY 212 Improvement & Safety Committee.


The on-going Highway 212 re-construction through Roberts is bringing anything but solace to this small rural community as repeated requests by citizens to the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) to reconsider the reconstruction plans are being stoned walled. 

Such is the frustration of the townspeople that a group has formed under the banner, Roberts HWY 212 Improvement & Safety Committee (RISC) to voice those concerns.

RISC is requesting three main things from MDT regarding safety, functionality, and overall aesthetics.

The group is asking for MDT to throw out the plan for a two way left turning lane proposed through the town and to keep the speed limit at 35 MPH.  

A turning lane in Roberts will reduce the existing wide shoulders, presently at 11 feet each, to 4 feet on the westside of Highway 212 and 6 feet on the eastside.  “Think about it; one nice wide shoulder and one skinny shoulder,” said Frank Jarvenpaa, RISC member.

However, the problem of a turning lane has now taken on an extra element with the influx of an Amish community to the area and consequently adding their traditional horse-drawn buggies into the traffic mix. The buggies are used primarily along the wide shoulders for travel and are on average 5.5 feet in width meaning they will overhang into the west side of the highway and just about fit on the eastside of the highway. 

“They’ve brought a new dynamic to this community,” said RISC chair Michael Gebhardt. “There are lots of businesses coming in. There are 50-60 members in total. They have their buggies and bicycles.” 

With MDT seeking to increase the speed limit to 45MPH through Roberts, members of RISC see this as a recipe for disaster.

“These buggies are going 5-8 MHP and a vehicle will only take 5-6 seconds to be on them,” he said. 

Steve Keebler, RISC member, noted that many of the buggies are just made of flimsy wood and are frequently travelled in by the entire family and not just one person.  

“I read there were 125 fatalities (nationally) between vehicles and Amish buggies last year,” said Gebhardt.

In responding to RISC’s safety concerns, the next day, Carbon County Commissioner Bill Bullock said the project was a “vast improvement on what we had.” 

When asked about the Amish factor, Bullock replied, “We’ve asked for horse and buggy signs. This started in 1999 before the Amish were here. They can go on the highway. In Lewistown and Hobson they have warning signs.”

“I’ve never heard of a buggy accident when I was on the Montana Highway patrol,” he said.

According to Dale Marie Muller, RISC member, the group has thrown the Amish factor into the argument but MDT “will not budge on altering” their plans. 

According to a letter sent by RISC to Glenn Oppel, the outreach consultant to MDT, RISC have requested that the Carbon County Commissioners initiate a speed study request of MDT and Commissioner Bill Bullock has assured RISC of the Commissioners' support for this once the project is complete.”

But a speed study will take about a year and follows the 85th Percentile Rule, which establishes the speed limit at whatever 85 percent of the traffic travels at “knowing some will go through faster than they should,” explained Jarvenpaa. 

“Our argument is does that bias the speed study? We would rather set it where we would like it to be and go from there,” he said.

A further thorny issue with the reconstruction centers heavily on the Veteran’s Memorials that are seen lining the eastside of the highway over Memorial Day.

Where they once stood is now a massive ditch. 

“The ditches were one of the first things that got people’s attention,” said Chris White, RISC member. “An Environmental Assessment Report from 2008 had a cross section showing a center turn lane and showing a ditch on the east side, and no ditch on the west side and all of a sudden it’s like there are big canyons on this side and that side. That is what got us going. It’s a big problem with the memorials.”

MDT has since relented on this issue after telling the committee that they could put hay bales in the ditch and the memorials on top of them.

In a letter to RISC from Ted Thronson, MDT District Construction Engineer, MDT is proposing to modify the drainage ditch on the east side to install a pipe in the ditch between West Birch Street and Maple Street to create a closed system with inlets. “The ditch would be re-graded over the pipe to provide cover and create a relatively flat area for the memorials. A shallow roadside drainage ditch would remain to capture roadside drainage and convey it to the inlets,” wrote Thronson. 

MDT are also proposing, according to Thronson, “to fill in the short ditch section at the southwest corner of the Birch Street intersection with the highway (near the church) and install an inlet structure in its place.”

“We’ve tried to come to MDT with things that don’t cost too much,” said Jarvenpaa. “The ditch they took seriously because of the black eye from the Veterans Memorial but as far as community concerns I don’t think they care. Things like the center turn lane will only cost paint and the speed limit won’t cost anything.”

RISC are also requesting a third cross walk to be added at Maple Street, Oak Street and Cedar Street based on “significant discussion and input from the Roberts School representatives regarding both historical and current (natural) flow of both adults and school age pedestrians.”

MDT  has said that once construction is complete a new study to determine cross walk locations will be evaluated but for now they feel only two locations are appropriate, Maple Street and the proposed Oak Street. 

Another bone of contention is the extensive work at the Y-Stop Gas Station, at the northern end of the town that has left homeowner Sanford Langager having to drive through the Y-Stop forecourt to get to his shop.

“Instead of creating an easement to bypass the Y-Stop,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to go through a public entity.”

Sanford is further upset by MDT’s plans to plant grass in front of his property and expect him to maintain it. 

“The ditches are so steep in front of my shop I can’t even run a lawnmower on it,” he said.

RISC feels that the present redesign at the Y-Stop is unacceptable. MDT’s point in extending Cooney Dam Road to the current location is to allow trucks to park, get their permits from the gas station and get back onto Highway 212 around the south end of the gas pumps.

RISC would like to see MDT take another look at this. In the Jan. 29 letter to Oppel they “request MDT consider filling the west ditch back in and re-paving that area back to the original design, then move the bollards down the Old Cooney Dam Road just beyond the Y-Stop and install a guard rail around the corner of the New Cooney Dam Road prohibiting through traffic behind the Y-Stop to the Old Cooney Dam Road approach.”

This redesign says RISC “would facilitate needed auto and truck maneuverability ingress/egress at the Y-Stop, eliminate Langager’s need to utilize Highway 212 with regular left turns against traffic to re-access his once accessible contiguous piece of property.”

RISC also noted that, “both properties are recognizing a notable decline in property value with MDT’s current design. Neither property feels the existing design was reasonably disclosed to them prior to being visibly obvious and near completion.”

This lack of communication and transparency from MDT is something that permeates the air in Roberts. The community feels very adrift in the discussions, very confused and somewhat at a dead end.

“It seems like their MO and they say ‘we’ll come back and revisit this stuff.’ It is going be a cold day in hell. If they won’t say try it without the turn lane first, it is going to be even more monumental in 2 years to try and convince them to take it out. That seems the reality to us,” said Jarvenpaa. “They don’t seem to be concerned. I see areas where they could wiggle but they won’t aside from the black eye on the Veteran’s Memorial.” 

“Where is there another community that has ditches cut into both sides of the road and a center lane in it?” said Gebhardt. “What is the justification of that other than pencil whipping numbers. They are concerned about the botched design between Rockvale and Laurel after a couple of fatalities. Is it going to take another fatality to redesign a highway? That is what we are trying to avoid." 

"Going back to the poor communication, of us not knowing that they were available to even talk to. They wanted us to talk to them back then but I always got the impression that they think we are too late reaching out to them because they don’t want to change that contract at all. There is no bending at all,” said Muller. 

“And yet the things we are asking for, we’ve been asking for ages,” said White.

A survey has being going around the community in recent months asking people their views on the speed limit, the center lane, the ditches and how they have been impacted. 

Responses have been very high in numbers with nearly 92 percent wanting to lower the speed limit, and remove the center lane and nearly 93 percent wanting the ditches filled in for the Memorials. Even the Amish community sent in some surveys. 

“The Amish are very supportive of our efforts. They completed 25-30 surveys. They are embracing this community and are looking to the community to embrace them. They would like to have 35 MPH from welcome sign to welcome sign,” said White. 

“We love our community,” said Muller. “I think MarCo LaRowe (RISC member) said, ‘No one cares about Roberts but we do.’”

A community meeting is being planned for March 11 at 6 p.m. at the Roberts Fire Hall.  RISC will not be hosting a meal, but the Amish will be hosting treats/dessert for all. RISC is inviting members of MDT and the Carbon County Commissioners to attend. 

To know more about the Roberts HWY 212 Improvement & Safety Committee please visit their website at or email them at or call them at (406) 633-6315.