By Kim Thielman-Ibes

After a two-year hiatus, commercial truck traffic is again permitted on Highway 191. The Montana Department of Transportation elected to prohibit semi trucks during a highway improvement project, which began on June 2008 and ended July 2010. Lori Ryan, Montana DOT public information officer, explains that because Highway 191 is a federal aid highway, it would violate both state and federal laws to indefinitely restrict truck traffic. Today, commercial truckers account for approximately 9.42% of Highway 191 traffic, roughly the same percentage as they were before the 2008-2010 construction restriction.

The highway construction project was funded in part by the Federal Highway Administration and cost about 12 million dollars. The construction aimed to improve public safety for drivers in Gallatin Canyon and included such projects as adding turn lanes for Highway 64 going to Big Sky, replacing two bridges (the Jack Smith and West Fork), widening shoulders, flattening slopes and installing new guard rails.

Initially, commercial trucks delivering to Big Sky were rerouted to Highway 287 through Ennis. This created a hardship for Montana companies like Bozeman’s Country Classic Dairies. “I had trucks making deliveries to West Yellowstone and Big Sky,” says Burt Smith, Transportation Manager of Country Classic Dairies. “It took my drivers 80 miles out of their way. In the milk business, where we’re operating on pennies and our delivery cost is $1.90/mile, it really adds up.”

Highway 191 is one of three major north-south commercial truck routes through Southwest Montana, including Highway 287 through Ennis and Interstate 15 south of Butte. Commercial truckers in Southeastern Montana with southern routes prefer Highway 191 for two reasons: economics and safety. Agricultural Express Trucking out of Billings uses Highway 191 for their southbound deliveries to Idaho, California and Utah because the road is maintained, remains open during the winter months and saves them miles and time. High winds plague 287 and Interstate 15 resulting in the closure of Monida Pass, and drivers there also contend with significant animal traffic.

“We use the most efficient and practical route,” says Barry Stang, Executive Vice President of Motor Carriers Montana. “Closing one of these three routes would put more pressure on other communities as it did when

Highway 191 was closed and carriers were routed through Ennis.

It’s a matter of shifting responsibility from one community to another, and it’s why we advocate keeping all roads open that we pay taxes on to build and move goods across Montana and the country.”

The latest numbers from the Montana Transportation Research Institute show that in 2008 the Montana trucking industry employed one in 16 residents and paid more than $301 million in federal and state roadway taxes and fees, equivalent to 55% of all taxes and fees owed by Montana motorists, who represent about 12% of vehicle miles traveled in the state.

Highway 191 is the gateway to skiing, hiking, fishing and resort living. Local businesses also felt severe economic hardship with the closing of Highway 191 to commercial trucking.

“During construction it wasn’t just commercial traffic that was diverted,” says Marne Hayes, Executive Director of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce.

Devon White, co-owner and operator of the Corral Bar and Saloon is
very happy to see the construction project completed and commercial traffic back on Highway 191. “Road construction ruined us for three summers,” says White, “I was glad to see the trucks back because they brought all the traffic with them and we do a bit of business with the truckers.”

Hayes notes there is some concern about truck traffic on 191 from a safety perspective, but she’s heard more from businesses about dropping the speed limit to less than 50 miles per hour through Big Sky. Thanks to the efforts of a local Big Sky group in the mid-1980s, DOT placarded hazardous materials are restricted on Highway 191 unless permitted for local deliveries.

“No matter how you stack it, nobody enjoys living close to a two-lane highway, but the safety improvements that have been made are a benefit to all,” says Michael More, who lives a third of a mile off Highway 191 and serves as the House District 70 representative. “The common sense reality is that it’s essential for interstate commerce, and it’s part of life in the rural countryside.”