Montana is rich in miles of mountainous roadway. Residents and travelers of Montana Highway 78 are no stranger to these scenic roads as the highway twists and turns through the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains.
While beautiful and iconic, this steep corridor can also create safety concerns. To make this rural roadway safer for residents and visitors, the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) is in the process of designing two adjacent projects known as the Highway 78 – Red Lodge to Luther projects. This work will reduce the roller coaster hill effect experienced when driving this roadway and increase sight distance.
The projects begin five miles northwest of Red Lodge past Summit Lane, and end east of Butcher Creek Road near Luther, Montana. In total, 10.6 miles of roadway will be improved.
Project Limits Map
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A safety solution is needed for Highway 78.
Montana Highway 78 has numerous areas where hills and valleys are steep. As a result of these steep grades, drivers have limited sight distance and limited time to react to upcoming obstacles. A corridor study performed in 2008 showed that 97 of 117 vertical curves – the steep way a road can rise and fall - do not meet the current design standard for minimum stopping sight distance. That’s 82% of curves where drivers would benefit from a roadway reconstruction that would increase the time to see a potential hazard ahead.
The study also found that 51 of 55 passing areas do not meet the current design standard for minimum passing sight distance. Imagine coming up on a slow vehicle and not quite seeing beyond the hills ahead. As a driver, you have to guess if a vehicle is speeding quickly towards you in the oncoming lane. It may come as no surprise that this road has a crash rate 65% higher than the statewide average.
In addition to flattening grades and improving sight distance, MDT is planning to widen shoulders of the roadway by four feet on each side and add additional vehicle turnouts. MDT is also planning to replace the bridge crossing where West Red Lodge Creek flows underneath Highway 78, by Lower Luther Road.
Design & Construction
The Highway 78 - Red Lodge to Luther projects are in the design phase, the period in which engineers develop plans needed for construction. This integral part of roadway development requires a great deal of research, outreach to residents, mapping and assessment of surrounding terrain (both above and below ground), determining the feasibility of construction features, and lastly, obtaining funding. A funding source for the Highway 78 projects has not yet been identified, meaning that the earliest this work might be considered for construction is 2026.
Why can't construction start sooner? What is going on behind the scenes?
Funding is one of the major factors in project timing. In Montana, we have more transportation and infrastructure needs than funding sources, and federal dollars end up paying for the bulk of our work. MDT must carefully balance needs across the entire state with the money available. As a result, some projects to have more pressing timelines than others. Though Highway 78 - Red Lodge to Luther will make important improvements, other work in the area has been prioritized for funding and construction. Every year, MDT reviews projects on deck and available funding to create a construction plan for the upcoming five years. The Highway 78 projects have not yet entered this five-year plan.
Additionally, the project process itself takes time. Before moving to construction under the five-year plan, all projects go through the rigorous internal processes of the design phase. Designing project plans not only takes time to create and properly review, but can be changed frequently depending on input from the public, internal feedback, and findings discovered during the design process.
As design plans get finalized, the project must then shift into the right-of-way phase, which includes negotiations with landowners to ensure MDT can secure any additional land necessary to improve the roadway. This is where plans truly get set into place. Projects can occasionally be delayed further in this phase as land ownership shifts or engineers hear feedback that must be reviewed and incorporated into plans.
Once negotiations are complete, project plans are finalized, and funding is set in place, only then can MDT move forward with construction and completion. The importance of feedback from the community throughout all of these phases cannot be overstated, and hearing from a well-informed public is a critical piece of helping MDT staff move smoothly from one step to the next.
All are strongly encouraged to share their opinions and feedback for Highway 78 improvements. As MDT moves forward with the best solution for the users of this corridor, local feedback is key.
In addition to sharing your thoughts, MDT wants to ensure you know how these projects are advancing. Questions or comments can be sent to:
- Email: Contact
Sloaneto subscribe for updates, ask questions, or submit a comment
- Project Hotline: 406-207-4484 during business hours
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