Cycling enthusiasts want the Montana Department of Transportation to conduct a speed study along Highway 2 from the Nine Mile to Pipestone Pass, citing a fatality last year and more bike riders in Thompson Park and other area trailheads.
On behalf of the Highlands Cycling Club, Butte-Silver Bow Commissioner Brendan McDonough is asking the council to formally request an MDT study of the two-lane road that winds its way through the foothills of the Highlands.
The set speed limit along the 15-mile mile stretch from Continental Drive to the Highway 41 junction to Twin Bridges and Virginia City was reduced from 70 mph to 60 mph in 2015, and although there are reduced advisory limits around some curves and switchbacks, some cyclists believe the 60 mph standard limit is too fast.
“There are quite a few cyclists who use the area now especially with all the improvements made at Thompson Park,” McDonough said. “There are the 10-speeders who use the road but also a lot of people on mountain bikes who park along the road and are trying to cross in different spots.”
Bill Fogarty, an MDT district supervisor in Butte, has talked with members of the Highlands Cycling Club about their concerns and says if commissioners make a formal request for a speed study, it will be sent to the agency’s traffic and engineering division.
There are numerous requests already pending, he said, so it could take six months to a year to have a study conducted, gather public comments and make any recommendations to the Montana Transportation Commission, which has the final say on speed limits.
Concerns were heightened when a 70-year-old bicyclist from Washington state was struck and killed by a passing motor home on July 22, 2019.
Randal Wayne Samstag was riding his bike on the shoulder of Highway 2 just south of the crossroad with Continental Drive when he was struck by the mirror on a motor home coming from behind, causing him to crash.
Jenny Heglund, a physician’s assistant specialist in Butte, was riding mountain bikes in the area when the accident occurred and was among the first on the scene.
Heglund and Lynn Ranf have since formed a committee under the Highlands Club to explore ways of making it safer for cyclists and those on foot to access Thompson Park and other area trailheads.
The area is gorgeous, Ranf said, and has become more popular, even in the winter when people use fat tire bikes to ride trails in the snow. They hope a speed study shows lower limits are warranted.
“There has also been an increase in residents back there,” Ranf said. “Our concern is there is no shoulder and the speed limit is 60 and that is really fast given all the curves and the entry points to the trail system,” she said.
Indeed, shoulders are narrow along most of the stretch and only a few feet — if that — in some places before dropping off or hitting mountain rock.
The MDT did a traffic study of Highway 2 several years ago that showed most vehicle accidents occurred along the flat or rolling stretches heading into and out of the mountainous sections, where advisory speed limits are lowered along blind curves and switchbacks.
The standard speed limit back then was 70 mph, but an internal study showed most motorists drive below that. The agency reviewed crash history along the stretch from Jan. 1, 2012 to Dec. 31, 2014, and found 37 single-vehicle wrecks and one head-on collision.
During the same period, the Montana Highway Patrol made 36 traffic stops resulting in 70 citations. Five were for speeding but most were for license or insurance violations, the study showed.
The MDT noted lower, advisory speed limits are posted along mountainous sections, each set for the type of road feature, be it curves or switchbacks. The study was the basis for the agency’s decision in 2015 to reduce the standard limit on Highway 2 from 70 mph to 60 mph. Today the 60 mph stretch runs from about Continental Drive to just past the Highway 41 junction, increasing to 70 mph along the straight stretch toward Whitehall.
But cyclists, including Gina Evans, say there is more bike traffic in the area now and 60 mph is probably too high. Evans was seriously injured in 2010 after she was struck by a truck while riding her bicycle on Continental Drive.
“If you are from here, if you’re local, you know when to slow down (on Highway 2),” Evans said. “But if you’re from out of state or driving the road for the first time, you don’t know what to expect — you are going to keep going around a curve at 60 mph.”
In Montana, bicyclists are subject to specific regulations but generally have the same rights to roadways as other vehicles.
McDonough, who is among five people running for Butte-Silver Bow chief executive this year, said he hopes people don’t try to make the issue along Highway 2 one of cars versus bicycles.
“We are just trying to make it safe for everyone,” he said.