Billions of dollars needed to improve Montana’s aging infrastructure, report finds

Crews began the Russell Street project earlier this year, starting one of many transportation projects planned or needed in Missoula. A new report identified billions of dollars in infrastructure improvements needed across the state. (Missoula Current file photo)

The American Society of Civil Engineers on Thursday graded Montana’s infrastructure a “C,” a passing grade but not one to boast over.

Released at the Capitol, the 2018 report card scored the state’s infrastructure across a range of categories, including bridges, dams and railways, and found the greatest deficiencies in schools, stormwater and roads.

The state’s last infrastructure report was released in 2014.

“Making sustainable investments in critical infrastructure and putting shovels in the ground is essential to our continued economic growth,” Gov. Steve Bullock said with the report. “It’s why I have proposed investments in projects in rural and urban communities all across the state.”

The state’s schools, roads, drinking water, wastewater and stormwater scored below a C, with schools scoring the worst at a D-minus. There, the report found, 68 percent of Montana’s schools were build before 1970 and are in need of repair and renovation.

The state’s roadways scored only slightly better at a C-minus. According to the report, 46 percent of Montana’s major roads are in poor to mediocre condition, costing residents an estimated $385 annually in added operating costs.

“It’s estimated that $15 billion is needed to maintain Montana’s roadway system over the next 10 years, but projected funding can only meet 33 percent of those needs,” the report said.

The report didn’t break its findings down by city. Missoula voters have invested millions of dollars in local schools and parks through recently passed bonds. The city of Missoula also purchased its drinking water system and has invested millions of dollars into repairs and improvements.

The Montana Department of Transportation has also launched several major road and bridge projects in Missoula, though other needs remain. As the Legislature prepares to convene next month, Bullock urged lawmakers to consider statewide needs.

“I hope the Montana Legislature will recognize the need for these projects, as emphasized by this report card, and work with me to make certain of a thriving economy and strong quality of life for communities, businesses and residents,” Bullock said.

Other findings in the report suggest that 465 of the state’s 5,276 bridges are structurally deficient, while municipal drinking water systems will need $885 million in improvements over the next 20 years.

Wastewater systems will also need $363 million in funding, according to the report. Current annual investments for both wastewater and water stand at just $170 million, “leaving a significant investment gap.”

Shari Eslinger, chair of Montana Infrastructure Report Card Committee and president of the Montana chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said the findings point to a greater need in funding and attention.

“Fortunately, Montana’s Legislature voted to increase the gas tax in 2017 to help the state qualify for matching federal funds,” said Eslinger. “We look forward to seeing the positive impacts this additional investment will have on our transportation system.”