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Central School Demolition sign

A pedestrian walks past the historic Central School in Helena last year before it was demolished. In the 2018 Report Card for Montana' Infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ the state's schools received the worst grade at a D- out of the ten infrastructure categories evaluated. There are 821 public schools around the state, and their average building age is 53 years old. 

Montana’s infrastructure received a C grade in a report produced by an engineers group released Thursday in advance of the legislative session set to convene in January.

Infrastructure has been a bone of contention the last several times lawmakers met in Helena, with bills failing to pass in 2011, 2015 and 2017. In 2013, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed an infrastructure bill, saying it didn’t leave enough cash in the bank for the rainy day fund.

In the upcoming session, Bullock has pitched a $294 million package that would pay for projects with a mix of cash and bonding. Several legislators are expected to bring additional pitches.

Mark Peterson, a Hill County commissioner from Havre who traveled to Helena on Thursday to hear a discussion about the report, put a human face on numbers, talking about a 24-mile stretch of road in his community that has seen 54 rollovers in 20 years.

“It’s a safety issue. Now every county in the state has a road like that," Peterson said. “… We need to start working at it.”

Peterson said it took about 20 years to get a 5-mile stretch of the road to the top of the district’s improvement list because of tight funding.

“It’s 20 years again before we can do the next 5 miles. That’s a problem,” Peterson said.

Montana’s roads got a C-minus rating in the report, and bridges received a C. While the state’s roads have plenty of capacity, condition is the problem, said Shari Eslinger, chair of the Montana Infrastructure Report Card Committee and president of the group of engineers that produced the report.

About 46 percent of the state’s major roads are in poor to mediocre condition, and that costs motorists about $385 a year in extra costs operating their vehicles. The report found about $15 billion would be needed to maintain the state’s road system over the next decade, but projected funding will only meet a third of the need.

Bridges are also in rough shape, with 7.3 percent of deck area rated as poor or structurally deficient. The average age of the 4,471 bridges in Montana is 44 years.

David Smith, executive director of the Montana Contractors Association, said while a gas tax passed out of the 2017 Legislature was a “good start” to addressing needs in the state’s transportation system, Montana is still “many billions short in both roads and bridges.”

The increase meant the fuel tax went from 27 cents a gallon to 31.5 cents. It will increase again to 32 cents in another two fiscal years before going to 32.5 cents in another two years and finally settling at 33 cents a gallon.

In 2018, counties were expected to see additional $3.85 million in money from the gas tax increase and cities were to get $2.34 million, according to numbers from the Montana Department of Transportation in February. About 270 projects have been either funded or completed with the pot of money coming from the increase in the gas tax.

Eslinger called for the state to continue its focus on funding, saying Montana “must continue to prioritize investment in infrastructure even during the challenging budget cycles.”

Jay Skoog, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Montana and board member for the Montana Infrastructure Coalition, said the coalition wants to focus on bonding bills in the coming session.

Bullock has proposed bonding in his infrastructure package, but Skoog said he thinks breaking projects up into separate bills will create a high chance of some proposals making it through the session.

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In the past, projects such as renovating Romney Hall on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman, or building a new state historical society, have not been popular with Republicans who hold control in the Legislature, leading the entire infrastructure package to fail.

“There’s going to be competing bills,” Skoog said. “ … The last few sessions the bonding bill has failed because … legislators have issue with different projects."

The coalition will also support a local option sales tax that’s in the works, as well as a proposal for more public-private partnerships.

Eslinger said that Montana is a low-population state with a lot of infrastructure needs, and tapping money from the estimated 12.4 million out-of-state visitors in the form of a sales tax could help generate money.

Peterson, from Hill County, said he wants local and state governments to work together to find ways to fund projects and be creative in options. 

“Is the time right to ask those that visit our state and utilize our facilities, is it time that we do revisit the sales tax?” Peterson asked, adding that in his community there’s a concern property taxes wouldn’t decrease if a sales tax was implemented.

The report released Thursday and produced by the American Society of Civil Engineers' Montana Section also found the state’s school buildings had the lowest grade, at a D-minus. The average age of a school facility in the state is 53 years. Because of that age, the need to fix damaged or worn-out systems is high, and schools are seeing code violations and higher energy costs, Eslinger said.

The report also looked at dams, drinking water, energy, rail, solid waste, stormwater and wastewater.

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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