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Efforts in Lincoln County to reduce Montana 37 speed limit bear fruit

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
Hagadone News Network | January 10, 2024 12:00 AM

Efforts by a group of Lincoln County residents and the county commissioners to lower the speed limit on Montana 37 have proven fruitful.

New speed limit signs were installed by Montana Department of Transportation workers in recent few weeks.

Some of the new speed limits are meant to create a transition zone between the edge of city limits and points further north and south on the highway, depending on the direction of traffic.

According to information from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, beginning at mile marker 1.5 the speed limit is 55 miles per hour until mile marker 7.

From mile marker 7 to mile marker 17.25 the speed limit is 65 mph. After mile marker 17.25 the speed limit is 70 mph during daylight hours and 65 mph at night. It drops to 60 mph in Rexford.

Just south of mile marker 3, the limit dropped from 70/65 mph to 55 mph.

The limit is 25 miles per hour in the city before going to 35 mph at Agather Road.

The state Transportation Commission approved the changes earlier this year.

“I’m glad it got done for the folks that live on the road,” District 1 Commissioner Brent Teske said. “It will be beneficial for public safety and for the wildlife.

“For the naysayers, slowing down in that stretch will not add several minutes in travel time, it will add seconds. And it’ll reduce the impact of a traffic accident when they do happen,” Teske said. 

A group of county citizens began their efforts in January 2021 to get the speed limits lowered because of their concerns over increased accidents and collisions with animals, such as deer or bighorn sheep.

At the time, more than 200 people signed the group’s petition calling for the speed limit reduction. They cited speeding motorists, conflicts with wildlife and safety concerns, particularly turning on and off the state highway, as the main reasons for the request.

At the April 26 commission meeting in the spring of 2023, Montana Department of Transportation District Traffic Engineer Rebecca Franke presented the results of a study and possible changes the agency is proposing.

In the Montana 37 study, which begins at the intersection of U.S. 2 in Libby and ends at Libby Dam, it showed average annual daily traffic volume in 2021 range from 6,300 vehicles north of the Kootenai River Bridge in Libby to about 460 vehicles near Libby Dam.

In the last five years, there has been an average increase in traffic volume of 14%. Traffic volumes were 30% higher in summer months. The segment between Fisher River Road and Jennings Hiline Drive had a 58% increase between 2017 and 2021.

There were 27 traffic crashes between Jan. 1, 2018 to Dec. 31, 2020. Eighteen had no apparent injuries while four had suspected serious injuries. A total of five had either possible or minor injuries. Thirteen crashes involved wild animals and eight involved adverse road conditions.

Fourteen crashes occurred in the first 3.5 miles of roadway.

Montana Highway Patrol made 31 traffic stops in the three-year timeframe and wrote 35 citations, 18 of which were for speeding. All the speeding tickets occurred between milepost 0 and 12.5 with clusters at 8.7, 10 and 12 and the bulk of them in the 70 mph zone.

TESKE SAID he remains hopeful that the county’s request to lower the speed limit in the Happy’s Inn area will get done.

“We haven’t heard back, but we’re still hopeful there'll be some changes,” Teske said. 

At the same meeting on April 26, 2023, the state didn’t recommend any change in the speed limit in the Happy’s Inn area following their studies and analysis.

On the heels of new subdivisions, business growth and recreational traffic in the Happy’s Inn area, some county residents, officials and the Fisher River Fire Rescue Department thought reducing the speed limit from 70 miles per hour to 45 was a way to increase traffic safety.

Franke’s report indicated the agency studied two 2-mile sections east and west of Happy’s Inn.

For the section of the 86-year-old byway there is a 1.2 mile passing zone east of Happy’s and a one-half mile passing zone west of it. Passing is not allowed in the Happy’s area.

According to Franke’s report, there was a 6.1% drop in traffic volume between 2017 and 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic helped result in a 3.6% drop in traffic in 2020 while 2021 showed a 7% increase. In 2021, the average annual daily traffic volume was 1,410 vehicles.

Not surprisingly, average traffic volumes increased 17% during summer months.

The state also analyzed accident figures and traffic citations issued in the area.

From Jan. 1, 2018 to Dec. 31, 2020, there were 11 crashes in the study area. Two were suspected of having serious injuries, one with minor injury and eight with no apparent injuries.

Wild animal related crashes were the most common with a total of eight. Four occurred during adverse road conditions, which include ice/frost, wet or slush. Eight occurred at night. One crash occurred at the approach for Happy’s Inn.

In the same three-year time period, Montana Highway Patrol made 36 traffic stops and issued 41 citations, according to MDT figures. Most of the citations, 30 of 41 or 73%, were for speeding in the study area. Four citations were written in the Happy’s Inn area near milepost 72. In the area between mileposts 73 and 74, there were 17 speeding citations written.

Teske said lowering the speed limit in the Happy’s area is being proactive.

Franke said at the meeting that when speed limit changes are forced, accidents actually increase.