State officials say U.S. 191 should open next week

An important route for north and south travel through southwest Montana could open next week to commercial trucks, said Jim Lynch, director of the Montana Department of Transportation.

The contractor working on U.S. 191, which runs from West Yellowstone to Four Corners through Big Sky, is finishing up chip sealing and painting, Lynch said.

The route has been closed to commercial truck traffic since, with an exception for local delivery trucks, since June 2008. This past spring, Lynch said the route would be open by July 1, but wet weather in June delayed work.

The opening of U.S. 191 is an important piece of a local group’s plan to reduce the amount of truck traffic on U.S. Highway 287 through the Madison Valley.

At a meeting in Ennis two weeks ago, Madison Valley Coalition director Dave Cope told a small crowd that the data shows prior to U.S. 191 closing, most of the commercial truck traffic traveling through this part of Montana used 191.

The opening of U.S. 191 is important because it will help to more evenly distribute truck traffic between the three routes through southwest Montana, which are highways 191 and 287 and Interstate 15, Cope said.

In addition to the opening of U.S. Highway 191, the coalition is working with state and local officials along with Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester to get a point of entry built on Highway 287 near the Montana and Idaho border, move trucks hauling hazardous materials to Interstate 15, limit commercial trucks on Montana Highway 84 between Norris and Four Corners, and establish wildlife travel corridors in the Madison Valley that limit vehicle speeds.

The Madison Valley Coalition is not trying to close U.S. Highway 287 to commercial trucking, Cope said at the meeting.

“Our proposal is not a zero trucking plan,” he said. “Local deliveries, fuel deliveries have never been restricted at all.”

In response to requests from the coalition, the Montana Department of Transportation installed a sign at Norris asking trucks to stay on highway 287 because highway 84 has a large amount of recreation traffic.

The sign seems to be working, Cope said.

As far as U.S. 191 is concerned, Cope and other coalition members continue to wait. At the meeting two weeks ago, he told attendees it would be open by mid-July.

Though MDT doesn’t always close highways to commercial truck traffic during chip sealing work, it kept U.S. 191 closed because the closure was already in effect, Lynch said.

“I have a closure from the beginning of construction to the end of construction,” he said. “Just from a standpoint of roadway operations, it makes it very difficult for the trucking industry to know when it’s open and when it’s closed (if the closure isn’t maintained through the entire project).”

However, it remains to be seen whether the opening of U.S. 191 will cause a significant reduction of commercial truck traffic in the Madison Valley, Cope said.

“I don’t know if it will really all get better once (construction on) 191 is all over,” he said.

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