The toxic cloud hovering over Alberton, Mont., for the past week has forced Interstate 90 traffic onto an 80-mile white-knuckled tour through beautiful country and over rapidly deteriorating byways.
Businesses along the two-lane route between St. Regis and Missoula are benefiting from the increased traffic, but trucking companies, road conditions and wheel alignments are suffering.
Montana authorities said Wednesday they expect the freeway to remain closed for another week.
The detour features stunning views of the Mission Mountains, herds of the rare belted Galloway cow (a black-and-white breed) and potholes big enough to topple an 18-wheeler.
Other significant road hazards are the dozens of frustrated motorists anxious to pass semis traveling only 35 miles per hour.
The detour has a temporary speed limit of 55 mph because of heavy traffic, but the conditions dictate a slower speed.
“If you’re talking a truck, it takes three hours,” said Alec Gay, a dispatcher with WTB Inc., a Spokane trucking company. “Instead of a straight shot, you’ve got windy, bad roads.”
On state Highway 200 through Dixon, Mont., highway workers have set up several orange signs warning “Rough Road.” The highway has crumbled so much that one four-mile section is a continuous jumble of dirt and pavement.
Highway maintenance workers are stealing moments between lines of traffic to patch the road.
“We have crews out there day and night,” said Montana traffic engineer Darin Kaufman. “They basically throw out the asphalt and let the cars pack it down themselves.”
The route normally carries an average of 1,200 cars and trucks a day. Now, it also is handling approximately 5,000 or more vehicles that typically travel through St. Regis each day on I-90.
WTB and some other trucking companies are seeking other routes for delivering goods. Trucks heading toward Salt Lake City and Las Vegas are being rerouted through Boise.
“I had one truck that way (I-90 detour) today,” WTB’s Gay said Tuesday. “He’s probably three or four hours behind schedule.”
The biggest problems are fuel costs and lost time.
“The alternative route is very potholed and very slow,” said Larry Trower, operations manager with Nationsway Transport Service Inc. of Spokane.
While the trucking business is hurting, diners, gas stations and stores are seeing a boom in customers.
The cook at The Bison Inn in Ravalli, Mont., said business has increased “immensely.”
“It’s at least twice what we were doing,” cook Aaron Rystad said. Just the same, Rystad is anxious for the freeway to reopen because he lives along the detour route. The truck traffic keeps him awake at night.
“We figure we’re up 15 percent,” said Glenda Hall, owner of Buddy G’s, a diner and gas station in Arlee, Mont. “The traffic is almost unbearable.”
Last week when I-90 first was closed, Hall noticed that many people were confused and lost.
“I did increase my hours,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of people who wanted a sandwich or something to eat. They feel a little safer when they hear it’s only 30 more miles to Missoula.”
But now it seems people are planning for the 1-1/2 hours the detour can add to the trip, Hall said.
The Montana Highway Patrol is keeping I-90 closed as a precaution.
“If we had another leakage, it would contaminate motorists as they were driving by,” said Sgt. Kenton Hickethier. “We could have health problems or possibly death. We’re trying to protect people.”
The agency has beefed up patrols along the detour route, Hickethier said. Officers captured a kidnapper along the route Wednesday, he said.
Meanwhile, crews continue the delicate process of cleaning up the derailed train near Alberton. Three chlorine-filled tanker cars on a Montana Rail Link train jumped the tracks April 11, forcing the evacuation of nearly 1,000 people.
Two people were hospitalized as a result of breathing the chlorine gas.
So far, one tanker has been emptied.
Rail Link officials said they expect residents to be able to return home next Wednesday.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Susan Drumheller Staff writer The Associated Press contributed to this report.