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Missoula County voters adopt 2-cent fuel tax for road building, repairs

In a nod toward better roads and federal dollars, Missoula County voters on Tuesday backed a local option fuel tax, passing the measure by little more than 1%.

The tally was close after initial results were released early on election night, though the margin in favor of the 2-cent tax had grown by Wednesday morning.

In the end, the measure passed with 22,059 in favor and 21,140 against, or 51.6% to 48.9%.

“It’s going to be a significant impact on Missoula County from the standpoint that right now, contrary to what some folks might think, we are tapped out on our ability to maintain additional miles of road in Missoula County,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said Tuesday night.

Missoula County estimates the 2-cent tax will collect around $400,000 annually from tourists and net $1.1 million overall. Most of the money will go into a special account dedicated only to road construction and maintenance while 1% will be used to reimburse the retail fuel seller.

By passing the measure, Missoula County becomes the first in Montana to adopt a voter-approved local option fuel tax.

“About 35 years ago, the state Legislature implemented this bill at the state level, and we’re the first county to pass it,” said advocate Jim Bachand of the Fix Our Roads campaign. “The benefits for not only they city and county will be tremendous in terms of improving our roads.”

The revenue will also help local transportation officials net federal grants. When used as a match, every $1 million in local fuel taxes could bring in as much as $7 million in state and federal highway grants.

In recent years, Strohmaier said, applying money to match a federal grant often meant taking money away from other pressing projects, such as dust abatement.

“This could be a game changer in helping clear the backlog of deferred maintenance over decades of Missoula County history,” Strohmaier said.

A coalition of businesses known as “Fix Our Roads: More Jobs, Less Potholes,” lobbied in support of the measure. A separate lobby backed by the Montana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association opposed it.