Infrastructure bill must come with reliable funding, Missoula County tells Tester

Missoula County commissioners outlined their infrastructure needs in a letter to Sen. Jon Tester, a wish-list that includes funding to address a backlog of deferred road maintenance and resources to fully implement the next generation of 9-1-1 technology.

Tester, D-Montana, solicited input from counties across the state related to their infrastructure needs and priorities. Missoula County sought feedback from its various departments and submitted its list on Thursday.

“Infrastructure is an important component of our communities throughout Missoula County – economically, socially and logistically,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said Thursday. “I think a lot of times folks are thinking bricks and mortar and roads – that type of infrastructure. But infrastructure includes much more than that.”

In their letter, commissioners cited three consistent needs, including reliable and continuous funding to ensure projects are completed before infrastructure fails. Solutions from the federal government must also be flexible, they said, allowing individual counties to craft their own solutions.

“Finally, it is critical that infrastructure not be treated as a one-time investment, but rather, as requiring ongoing maintenance,” they said.

Commissioners said past funding has been focused largely on urban areas, leaving Missoula County stretched thin when trying to address its maintenance backlog on 500 miles of maintained roadways.

They also said unreliable funding behind several federal programs, including Secure Rural Schools, has forced the county to make cuts in both staff and operating costs.

Even so, they added, the demand for services continues to increase.

“The current level of funding provided through SRS does little to address this demand for service,” they wrote. “The need for this funding to continue is even more apparent after the devastating 2017 fire season.”

Commissioners also included emerging technology in their list of infrastructure needs. The county has already started integrating new 9-1-1 technology, though the cost of doing so doesn’t come cheap or easy, and flexibility will be required to implement different solutions, they said.

Affordable broadband also is key to the region’s economic growth.

“Flexible federal assistance would allow states to remove barriers so that service providers could more readily build out networks in areas with low population density,” they wrote. “ Affordable, reliable and widespread broadband access is critical to Montana as we compete for high-tech jobs, expand businesses, and work to retain young people in Montana communities of all sizes.”

The Missoula International Airport has expressed concern in recent months over unpredictable federal funding, including the allocation of grants needed to begin – and complete – the redevelopment of the airport’s passenger terminal.

Other infrastructure projects, including plans to close gaps in the road network west of the city to guide new development and attract light manufacturing also remain in limbo. Such headwinds hinder the region’s economic growth, commissioners said.

“Scaled back federal funding impacts local government’s ability to support expanded transportation systems, such as air and rail, which stymies business growth and retention,” they told Tester.