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212 crash

Montana Highway Patrol troopers investigate a near head-on crash on U.S. Highway 212 south of Laurel on Sept. 16. Three people were extricated and transported to hospitals. One of them, John William "Trey" Tweddle, 35, of Cody, Wyo., died of his injuries nine days later.

The Montana Department of Transportation commenced relocating, upgrading and widening the highway between Laurel and Rockvale several years ago because crash rates on the busy two-lane route were more than twice the statewide average for similar Montana roads.

With the first three phases of the project completed, some safety hazards have been mitigated, but a new danger has been created: Drivers have been confused by the highway repeatedly switching back and forth between two-lane traffic and four within several miles. A tragic example is the Sept. 16 collision that fatally injured John William "Trey" Treddle, of Cody, Wyo.

The "crash was just past one of the merging back into 2 lanes areas and someone made a bad pass into oncoming traffic," the Carbon County Commission said in an Oct. 1 letter "imploring" the Montana Department of Transportation to finish the four-lane construction next year. The final project phase was scheduled for 2022, but that timeline may change later this month.

The 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 MDOT public information officer Lori Ryan.

Since Phase 3 was completed in June, two fatal crashes have occurred on the new stretch of highway. The Gazette has heard complaints from regular commuters of other near collisions and being forced to take the ditch to avoid an oncoming vehicle in sections with only two traffic lanes.

This half-done project may have created a more dangerous highway than it replaced. The Carbon County Commission's letter states: "If one were to observe the traffic patterns, you will find that there is a large percentage of commuters still using Clark's River Road (Old highway 212/310) for the sole purpose of avoiding the new highway. The main reason people are choosing Clark's River Road is because they feel it is safer than all of the merging of lanes in addition to the high speeds in those merging areas."

Better 2020 plan

On Tuesday, MDOT District Administrator Rod Nelson said a new plan for completing the Highway 212 project will be presented to the Montana Transportation Commission on Oct. 23 and would be voted on Oct. 24. That plan is to finish the northbound lanes in 2020, making the entire 11-mile stretch four lanes.

If the Transportation Commission approves, bids for the project will be let in February, which should allow the winning contractor sufficient time to start construction in early May and finish the job before winter returns, Nelson told The Gazette.

"We received a lot of public input, which we greatly appreciated," Nelson said Tuesday. Asked how MDOT came up with the $8 million to complete the project, he said: "we juggled some things around."

It's a great relief to residents of Carbon and neighboring counties that the people's complaints have been heard. We call on the five-member Transportation Commission to approve the 2020 construction plan that will make this heavily traveled route safer for locals, tourists and truckers. Barb Skelton, of Billings, is this district's commissioner and chairs the panel.

Approve the new plan to finish four lanes from Laurel to Rockvale in 2020.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.