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Buttigieg highlights Hwy. 93 funding during reservation visit

by BERL TISKUS
Reporter | May 9, 2024 12:00 AM

The Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Law and its connection to safety for people and wildlife was on Pete Buttigieg’s mind during his recent visit to the Flathead Reservation.   

Buttigieg, the U.S. Transportation Secretary, was in Western Montana Monday and Tuesday to celebrate funding from the Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Biden in 2021.

Buttigieg met last Tuesday morning with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council in Pablo and took a look at the wildlife overpass and adjacent fencing near Gray Wolf Peak Casino in Evaro, before holding a press conference. He noted the white crosses on each side of Highway 93, marking the places where people lost their lives. 

Shane Morigeau, a state senator and CSKT member, noted that one of those crosses marks the spot where his first cousin, Roy – whom Morigeau looked up to and who “taught me to shoot a .22” – was walking back to Arlee from Missoula and was struck by a vehicle and lost his life. 

The whole country is going through a crisis of deaths on the nation’s roadways, the Secretary said, but “it disproportionately affects rural areas and affects tribal members.” He noted that many sections of U.S. 93 that span the reservation are especially hard to walk or bike. 

“Part of that danger is due to outdated surface conditions; part of it is due to the lack of separated, protected pedestrian and bike paths, especially when you’ve got freight or logging trucks going 70 miles per hour just a few feet away; part of it is due to the frequency of wildlife-vehicle crashes,” Buttigieg said. “When there is a crash, it brings this whole important highway to a standstill because there's not an alternate route.” But the Secretary delivered good news, aimed at improving at least a portion of the highway. 

“On behalf of the Biden administration, I’m so proud to be here, to formally celebrate $110 million in funding through that Bi-Partisan Infrastructure law to improve the north Ninepipe corridor of U.S. 93.” 

“We’re going to reshape the number of slopes that have historically contributed to crashes, we’re going to build a path for people to walk, bike, or ride a horse, adjacent to but separated from that highway. We’re going to construct a number of bridges or culverts to facilitate animal crossings, which as you know, will protect animals and people,” Buttigieg said. 

Buttigieg had praise for Montana Senator Jon Tester, who he credited with working across the aisle to negotiate and create the infrastructure bill. 

Buttiegieg said that the most recent funding for the stretch of Hwy. 93 along Ninepipe Reservoir came from a new Department of Transportation program, created by the Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Act, called the Reconnecting Communities Program. 

As CKST pointed out in their application, he added, “this is a project that brings special meaning to the word community, reflecting that it is not just the people, but also the land and animals and nature that forms part of the community. This project respects community … and allows CSKT to build a road that meets the needs of its people while still protecting the land.”

The Ninepipe corridor won’t be the only part of Montana impacted by funding from the Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Act. 

“Now all told we have announced $2.4 billion to improve transportation across Montana so for that I want again to thank Sen. Tester for bringing Republicans and Democrats  together and shaping it so that it served rural and tribal communities,” Buttigieg said. 

Some examples he gave were:

• Modernizing and expanding the Missoula airport to accommodate more travelers. “We think competition will lower ticket prices because more airlines will serve the area,” the Secretary said.

• Replacing or rehabilitating four timber bridges in Eastern Montana’s Wibaux County that Buttigieg said “are vital for farmers moving their products onto I94 to reach the rest of the country.” He added that the old bridges sometimes force trucks to detour as much as 200 miles.

• Improving safety on 11 intersections and along six corridors in Billings by installing high visibility crosswalks, improved lighting, sidewalks and shared use paths.

Since the federal government has not historically funded wildlife crossings, a reporter questioned Buttigieg, “why here, why now?”

“It reflected a lot of leaders negotiating who knew how important it was to the West and not only the West, certainly to tribal lands as well,” Buttigieg said.

“Look, this is not only a matter of doing right by the land and doing the right thing for wildlife, it's also a matter of safety. When we have 26,000 injuries a year, 200 deaths a year and millions of dollars of property damage because of wildlife strikes, and we have a chance to cut that, to reduce that, how can we not look at that?”

Wildlife crossings are also part of the Department of Transportation’s efforts to take a look at the ”big picture” of transportation, Buddigieg added. “We’re proud to support great ideas and good projects like we see here.”