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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Much Of Montana's Infrastructure Is Old And Outdated, Report Says

Montana's 2018 infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
American Society of Civil Engineers
Montana's 2018 infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

There’s been some improvement in Montana’s roads, bridges and other public works projects since 2014, but they’re still generally in mediocre shape. That’s according to a new report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers. It gave Montana a ‘C’ grade Thursday in its latest analysis of public infrastructure here.

ASCE says the state recently improved its wastewater systems and committed more money to improving local roads and bridges. But the group says solid waste facilities, dams, drinking water, and schools requires attention and additional funding.

“Unfortunately,the report card finds that a good portion of Montana’s infrastructure is old and outdated,” says Shari Eslinger.

Eslinger is the president of the Montana section of the ASCE, which says the backbone of the state’s physical structures was built 50 to 100 years ago.

Eslinger says Montana’s public systems are in better shape than the nation as a whole, which got a ‘D+’  on the latest ASCE report card.

According to the new report on Montana, the state’s railways are in the best shape, while the state’s schools are the most at risk.

“We must continue to prioritize investment in infrastructure even during challenging budgeting cycles,” Eslinger says.

But finding a way to fund that kind of investment has been one of the most difficult and persistent fights in the state Legislature, and likely will be again in 2019.

In three of the last four regular legislative sessions, lawmakers were unable to agree on how, or whether to, borrow money to pay for a package of big construction projects. One year the plan was vetoed by Governor Steve Bullock over concerns that it would lead to an unbalanced state budget.

Passing bills to maintain or fix expensive, big-picture projects are a heavier lift than most other policies for lawmakers because the Montana Constitution requires a two-thirds vote from the Legislature to create state debt.

And, Democrats and Republicans have recently been unable to even agree on what constitutes "public infrastructure."

“We’ve got an issue with the definition of infrastructure, because you have a  fairly wide basis in terms of building that definition.”

That was House Majority Leader Brad Tschida, a Republican, speaking in mid-November soon after Democratic Governor Steve Bullock released his budget calling for $290 million in infrastructure investments though a mix of cash and bonds.

Some of the largest bonding projects the governor is calling for include renovations for Romney Hall at Montana State University, and the construction of a new Montana Heritage Center. Each of those come with a price tag over $30 million. 

Those types of projects haven’t won the support of Republicans like Senate President Scott Sales, speaking in November.

“It’s hard to say that, you know, Romney Hall and a new building for the Historical Society rises, in my mind, to the same level as a sewer system, water project, or bridge, or a road that is going to benefit a multitude of citizens, verses just people in a specific location.”

In 2017, lawmakers and the governor agreed to pay for some infrastructure projects with cash, and increased the gas tax to boost money for local road and bridge work.

However other proposed projects for schools, water systems, and capital projects, were not funded.

Jay Skoog, a board member of the Montana Infrastructure Coalition, says the organization’s priority in the upcoming legislative session is to get bills passed that allow the state to bond, or borrow money, to pay for big ticket construction and maintenance projects..

“I don’t feel that what the Infrastructure Coalition wants to fund is different than what’s in the governor's budget,” Skoog says.

The infrastructure coalition includes the Montana Chamber of Commerce, the League of Cities and Towns and the Montana Economic Developers Association, among other public and private sector groups.

Skoogs says some past proposed big projects in Montana have failed because they’ve been tied up with others in one large bill package voted down by the Legislature.

He says this time around there is talk that more of the public works projects will be broken up into their own bills to decrease the chance that they’ll sink if tied up with more politically contentious items.

The new report from the American Society of Civil Engineers encourages lawmakers to explore new sources of money to pay for public work projects. The group suggests tapping into the pockets of the vast number of non-resident travelers passing through the state that add stress on Montana infrastructure.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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