Montana’s Department of Transportation and consulting firm DOWL held a public meeting Tuesday to unveil their plans to make Highway 12 safer between Helena and East Helena.

Construction on the project will take place between Shephard Way and 4th Street/Wiley Drive. The new plan will place raised medians between lanes of traffic, and add taller and heavier concrete barriers on the S-curve along the viaduct just east of Highway 12.

DOWL project manager Sarah Nicolai presented the new plan to a dozen or more Helena and East Helena residents curious about the new project, which is slated to begin this spring and be completed by the end of 2018.

The project is under the aegis of the Vision Zero Initiative, MDT’s goal of zero fatalities or serious injuries happening on Montana roads.

Traffic accidents are damaging in a multitude of ways. In addition to the grief that comes with a traffic death, fatal crashes can cost upwards of $5 million in medical costs, work loss, property damage and legal costs, so MDT is working on reducing patterns of crashes as quickly as possible.

MDT decided that this project would be useful for the populations that use Highway 12, as officials believe the improvements can reduce the number of crashes in the area. 

An analysis shows 75 crashes were documented on this stretch of road from 2005 to 2014. In 2016, MDT’s safety engineers identified the roadway for potential improvements and federal Highway Safety Improvement Program funding. 

“Roadway improvements could not have prevented all of those crashes,” Roy Peterson, MDT traffic and safety engineer, said in a statement. “But we determined that engineering improvements that separated opposing lanes of traffic, enhanced visibility of all traffic lanes, delineated the center of the roadway and increased traction on the bridge surface would benefit drivers — especially those who are unfamiliar with the area or driving in inclement weather.”

MDT traffic project engineer Mike Grover said that several options had been discussed, but the combination of raised medians and “jersey rails” as the taller concrete barriers are nicknamed worked best.

This is just one of the projects MDT is working on in or around the Helena, Butte and Great Falls areas.

“I’m working on 30 projects in the Butte and Great Falls district,” Grover said.

For the dozen-plus people in the room, this project brought up plenty of discussion.

“We did a lot of outreach,” Nicolai said of the crowd clustering around poster boards and asking MDT engineers questions.

 “It’s an important project. ... One fatality is too many,” Nicolai said.