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MDT opens Headwaters Rest Area

The Montana Department of Transportation officially opened the Headwaters Rest Area on US 287 near Three Forks on Friday, April 5.

In a release, MDT Interim Director Larry Flynn discussed the opening.

"MDT appreciates the public's patience as this project took longer than expected," said Flynn. "This has been a long process. We look forward to opening the Headwaters Rest Area to better serve the needs of the traveling public."

While this may have been positive news for travelers, the journey to the opening has been controversial for many area residents, who have concerns over safety, crime, traffic, and the design-build project. Below is a timeline of the project.

MARCH 2021

After learning of the Bozeman Rest Area Replacement Project in March of 2021, the Voice contacted then MDT Butte District Administrator William Fogarty, who discussed the proposed Design-Build project that would replace the rest area on North 19th Avenue in Bozeman with two possible locations near the Interchange of Interstate 90 and US 287.

According to the Request for Quote (RFQ) for the project, the 5.48-acre existing Bozeman Rest Area facility was built in 1999, and due to the expanding limits of the City of Bozeman and the increased infrastructure needs in the area, a new location for a replacement facility was desirable.

Fogarty said this was not originally a project on MDT's radar; it was instead initiated by the City of Bozeman.

The project required that the Design-Build Firm provide a property exchange in lieu of any other compensation or cost reimbursement. The appraised value of the site in Bozeman is $3,818,888. The RFQ stated that in addition to procuring new property to relocate the existing rest area, the successful firm must design and construct a new single-unit rest area facility adjacent to I-90.

According to the MDT, the new rest area must be located at an existing I-90 interchange between the existing site and the Milligan Canyon Interchange at MP 267. Once the facility has been completed, MDT will transfer ownership of the current location.

In March of 2021, the estimated completion of the facility was October 31, 2022.

Because the project's property exchange nature differs from what MDT usually does, Fogarty said he was aware there had been some "noise" and "angst" about the relocation.

He added residents in the area could provide feedback during the permitting process through the Department of Environmental Quality and Broadwater County.

For the initial story about the proposed rest area, the Voice also contacted then Broadwater County Sheriff Wynn Meehan, who had concerns about growth in the area that would house the facility.

"The county is growing faster than we can keep up with. There is no real county infrastructure for the southern end of Broadwater. There is no fire station, ambulance barn, law enforcement office, or county services," Meehan said.

APRIL 2021

In an interview with the Voice, then City of Bozeman Community Development Director Marty Matsen had a differing view on the project's origin.

Matsen said they did not initiate the project, but after being approached by a private developer, they wrote letters of support for the project, feeling it could be great for commercial development in Bozeman.

On April 21, 2022, the Montana Transportation Commission unanimously approved a staff recommendation for a design-build contract with the Montana Rest Area Joint Venture Project (C.A. Rickert and Associates/Diamond Construction) for $2,693,888.

Before the vote, Engineer Kevin Christensen discussed the project with the commission.

Christensen said that when they built the current rest area in Bozeman, there was not much there except the rest area and Interchange, but that area has grown tremendously and is currently developed and congested. He said the City of Bozeman began to indicate to them that the location of the rest area was undesirable and that the congestion was causing them some concern.

Christensen said the MDT agreed with the city that it wasn't ideal for housing a rest area, but it wasn't a priority.

After being put in contact with a developer, Christensen said they learned of the "interesting concept" that would provide the MDT with a new rest area in exchange for the existing property, and they began to explore what he described as a "real innovative process."

Transportation Commissioner Shane Sanders said there was no way to seek public comment beforehand because it was up to the contractors where this project would be located. He said once people became aware of it, there have been several comments of concern, specifically from those in Broadwater County, where it will be located.

JULY 2021

In July 2021, MDT hosted a public forum at Headwaters Livestock about the proposed facility, now called the "Headwaters Rest Area." MDT officials said the rest area would now be approximately 3,000 feet north of I-90 on the west side of US 287.

"Wheatland" area resident Amy Weidinger created an online petition asking the Montana Governor to override the project.

"We are deeply concerned for our community, safety, environment, and the location of the proposed rest area. We are outraged at the lack of public notice and comment. The Montana Department of Transportation, in partnership with the City of Bozeman, made a deal to move the Bozeman Rest Area to Three Forks, Montana, without a public hearing, public involvement, and local approval," Weidinger said.

Elizabeth Barton wrote on an online page for the petition that relocating the Bozeman Rest Stop and tripling its size is an irresponsible proposal.

"The Bozeman rest stop is a known crime problem. Its new location will be one-half mile from residential subdivisions. Our Sheriff's Department is opposed to this project. We were given no notice, while Bozeman Community Leaders and an out-of-state developer were given the power to shape the future of Three Forks taxpayers. Please cancel this project for the safety and security of our families," Barton said.

At the open house, MDT Alternative Contracting Section Supervisor John Pavsek said the project started four or five years ago with the City of Bozeman becoming interested in moving the rest area.

Pavsek said that as development continued in Bozeman, what was already a small facility became very busy. He added that three private parties also approached them, who said they would give the state a new rest area if they did a land swap.

"MDT cannot by state law do a straight-up land swap. It has to be a competitive process, which is an innovative method using the design-build," he said.

In charge of design builds for the MDT, Pavsek reported they had used this concept on 48 different projects but said what makes this one different is they allowed the design/build team to come up with the site and ended up with two different proposals.

And because state law requires a financial element to a design-build project, he said the developer committed to reimburse the state roughly 1.2 million for the ability to develop the project. Pavsek estimated the cost of building this facility would be $5 to $7 million.

A July article from the Belgrade News states that project developer Craig Rickert proposed a swap with MDT in 2016.

In an interview during the July public forum, Rickert said there were difficulties with how the Bozeman project was originally designed. He went through 13 different sites to try to find somewhere else and ended up with the location in Three Forks.

Rickert added that the location meets the federal mandates about the frequency of rest stops, offers more parking, and-as far as safety is concerned-will be the most advanced MDT location in the state.

At the open house, the MDT said groundbreaking would be scheduled for later summer or early fall.

AUGUST 2021

As of early August, the petition to stop the rest area had over 900 online and over 100 in-person signatures.

During a Three Forks City Council meeting, Weidinger approached the governing body and asked them to help in any way possible.

Then Three Forks Mayor Sean Gifford said they are paying a lot of money for Gallatin County police services that get pulled out of town.

"We pay a lot of money for police services that get pulled out of town," "I don't think Three Forks should be subsidizing the growth in Broadwater County," he said.

According to Gifford, there were 132 service calls in 2020 at the Bozeman Rest area.

"So that is 132 more calls for service that we can't handle out here for law enforcement," he said.

According to information provided by Bozeman Police Information Coordinator Wendy Elgen, the department was called out to the rest area at the 19th Avenue Interchange 99 times between January 1 and July 23, 2021.

Forty of those calls were patrol checks, which Elgin described as people pulling into the rest area with an officer behind them.

So far in 2021, there have been seven "suspicious," three "trespassing," three "disorderly," two "thefts," one "assault," and one "hazmat" call.

Bozeman Police Chief Jim Veltkamp said they sometimes respond to calls of suspicious people, suspicious activity, domestic vehicle disturbances, welfare checks on people staying there, and various other issues.

"Every once in a while, we have a more significant event there, but those have been rare. I can't say the rest area has been an ongoing problem for us, but its presence certainly does add to our call volume," he said.

Then Stillwater County Sheriff Charles "Chip" Kem discussed with the Voice the rest area in his jurisdiction between Columbus and Park City.

"Over the years, we have had everything from vehicle break-ins, thefts, and vandalism to assaults, robberies, sexual assaults, abductions, and suicides. I don't mean to imply that these incidents are a frequent occurrence," Kem said. "These are examples of the types of calls we have had over the last ten or so years. That being said, personally, I would have concerns about a rest area being that close to a residential area. Just my opinion."

Later in August, the MDT announced that a law enforcement office space would be added to the Headwaters Rest Area Design in coordination with the design and construction team.

Brewer also told the Voice a group had filed a petition in District Court in Broadwater County against the Montana Department of Transportation.

"Our rights were violated. We sought legal counsel, and the attorney confirmed our constitutional rights under Article 2, Sections 8 and 9 were violated by the way MDT handled this project. They did not seek public comment nor hold a public hearing. We have taken legal action, and we are not done fighting for the right thing," Brewer said.

The suit asked the court to put a stop to the project, alleging the MDT violated their Montana Constitutional rights by not providing notice and opportunity to be heard to the landowners, failed to host open meetings before the decision to relocate the facility from Bozeman to Broadwater County, did not comply with Montana law dealing with bidding, notice, and sale requirements for the sale of state land, and violated the Montana Administrative Procedures Act (MAPA) leading up to and including the decision to issue a contract for the site selection.

2022

In January 2022, Brewer said the plaintiffs chose to drop the lawsuit.

"This was not an easy or a happy decision, and a lot of sleep was lost over the issue. Due to the confidential nature of a lawsuit and the pending authorization of the plaintiffs...Please know that the best efforts of your neighbors were put forth and that the plaintiffs all wish a different outcome would have been reasonable and possible," he said.

In early August, MDT issued a release on the Headwaters Rest Area stating construction was moving forward. In another release in October, MDT said the rest area is nearly complete and is anticipated to open during the winter when it can be connected "to the new community water system."

2023

The Headwaters Rest area was a hot topic at the January 9, 2023, meeting of the Broadwater County Commission when Butch and Elizabeth Barton approached the governing body.

Discussing a letter sent to the commission, Butch said the premise of the correspondence was to understand legally how the rest area could connect to the Wheatland Targeted Economic Development's District Sewer System since it was not a value-added business.

Commissioner Darrel Folkvord told Butch that he was incorrect and that it was legal for the rest area to do so.

Butch Barton questioned where in the Montana Code Annotated it was legal for the rest area to use the TEDD's sewer system.

"I would like you to provide me with the law that allows that to happen. Because the law we are reading - my wife and I -says, 'If it's not a value-adding business, it cannot be included in the TEDD,'" he said. "So why are we hooking up a non-value-adding business to the TEDD?"

Folkvord told the Barton's that public safety always adds value. When Butch Barton said that the rest area would bring the opposite of safety to the area, Folkvord told him that was solely Butch Barton's opinion.

According to Lisa Olmstead, the Public Involvement Manager for DOWL-a consulting firm for MDT-moving the rest area to Broadwater County had several benefits for the organization.

"There are a number of reasons why the rest area needed to be relocated – in particular, the existing [Bozeman] facility is dated and undersized with no room for expansion. This rest area will be twice the size, increase parking, and offer many safety improvements over the former facility," she said in an email.

Olmstead also clarified that DOWL and MDT were unaware of any legalities preventing them from hooking up to the local utility district.

"We applied and were granted access," Olmstead said. "Ultimately, it seems the water system will be really beneficial to that area of the county. I understand that it was contingent on having a few preliminary users, and the rest area was one of the first."

Although the Broadwater County commissioners became aware of the rest area project in November 2020, it was outside their jurisdiction to approve or deny the project.

"The commission had no part in the approval or rest area process. This was done at the state level," Commissioner Lindsey Richtmyer said.

The Headwaters Rest Area was expected to open in the late summer of 2023; however, Olmstead said it's been pushed back. Although the building is constructed, the sewer and water system is the final piece of the project, and until that project is complete, the rest area will remain closed.

In May 2023, MDT announced the closure of the rest area in Bozeman.

Later in May, Broadwater County Sheriff Nick Rauser said there are many unknowns about the facility that had yet to open.

Rauser explained he is a 'prepare for the worst hope for the best type of person,' and while he does think there will be an increase in calls, he isn't sure the rest area will be as popular as the recently closed one on 19th Avenue in Bozeman. Rauser said that anytime something brings more people into an area -- you will get more calls –- he doesn't know what the level will be like at the new rest area.

"Some of this is just unknown to me," said Rauser. "It's kind of a weird spot to me to have a rest stop. Most of them are along the Interstates. This one, you have to get off in Three Forks and go down the road a little way to get to it."

In August, Olmsted said an opening date still needed to be set for the facility, with an anticipated time of later summer or early fall.

2024

In early January, The Headwaters Utility Association (HUA) announced the opening of its wastewater treatment facility at the intersection of Interstate 90 and Highway 287. According to a release, the facility will soon begin servicing the new Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) rest area.

"These services will make this rest area the first of its kind in Montana, conserving thousands of gallons of fresh water and generating zero waste as it essentially operates on a closed loop system," states the release.

In March of 2024, the Warranty Deed was filed, transferring the Headwaters Rest Area property from C.A. Rickert and Associates, a South Dakota Corporation, to the MDT.

 
 
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