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Highway 212 crash scene

New sections of Highway 212 alternate between two and four lanes between Joliet and Laurel. The Montana Department of Transportation plans complete construction on four lanes next year.

The Montana Department of Transportation has moved up completion of four lanes between Laurel and Rockvale. The Montana Transportation Commission voted last week to let bids on the project in February 2020. Previously, the work was slated to begin in 2022.

The MDOT proposed to finish the Highway 212 four lane in response to public outcry that the partially completed roadway is dangerous. Drivers have been confused by the half-finished highway switching from four lane to two lane and back again and again over several miles.

Two fatal crashes have occurred since the incomplete highway opened in late June. Billings-Red Lodge commuters have reported other incidents in which they drove into the ditch to avoid being hit by an oncoming vehicle.

In one collision on Sept. 16, John William "Trey" Treddle, of Cody, Wyo., was fatally injured near one of the merging back into two-lane sections. That crash occurred when one driver attempted to pass into oncoming traffic. The crash was cited in an Oct. 1  letter the Carbon County Commission sent "imploring" the Montana Department of Transportation to finish the four-lane construction next year, instead of the scheduled 2022.

This Highway 212 project has already cost about $40 million for the first three phases, including constructing four-lane bridges at the railroad tracks south of Laurel. The final phase is estimated to require $8 million more, according to Rod Nelson, MDOT district administrator in Billings.

Nelson said MDOT reworked its project plans and proposed getting this busy, 11-mile stretch of Highway 212 finished in 2020. The Montana Transportation Commission approved the change in its meeting last week.

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With the project now scheduled for bid letting in February, Nelson expects construction will start in May and be completed in 2020.

It's great news that this important route for tourists, commuters and truckers will be a four-lane divided highway by this time next year. What about the confusing and potentially hazardous lane configuration in place this winter?

MDOT is taking another look at the roadway over the next couple of weeks, Nelson said. A traffic safety engineer will review the safety features and signage on the highway to see if something more should be done, he said. If additional signs or cautions are warranted, they will be installed as soon as possible, he said.

We commend MDOT for being responsive to public concerns about Highway 212 safety. Ideally, the last phase of this project would have been funded and completed this year, but the department is on the best course possible at this time.

Meanwhile, let's all use extra caution when driving between Laurel and Rockvale, and tell friends and family about the two-lane, four-lane switches. Drive defensively.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.