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Funding constrained: Missoula’s transportation plan to parcel out $181M over 30 years

With efforts afoot in the Legislature to remove some discretionary tools, including the local option gas tax, funding the city’s transportation network could become more difficult, placing infrastructure at risk of further deterioration while slowing the city’s economic growth. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Without a large infusion of state or federal dollars, Missoula’s Long Range Transportation Plan will parcel out smaller projects over the next 30 years in an effort to stretch $181 million in discretionary funding.

With efforts afoot in the Legislature to remove some discretionary tools, including the local option gas tax, funding the city’s transportation network could become more difficult, placing infrastructure at risk of further deterioration while slowing the city’s economic growth.

“It’s why we’re focused on more efficiency, better connectivity, and trying to increase transit and multi-model travel,” said Aaron Wilson, the city’s transportation planner. “You can absorb a lot more growth and capacity on our existing transportation system that way, and be more efficient without committing all our funding over the next 30 years to just one or two projects.”

As it stands, most of the city’s funding from the Surface Transportation Program is already committed to widening Russell Street. That leaves the city only a handful of other discretionary sources to address maintenance, make new transportation connections, or enhance existing connections.

Planners have included a number of those goals in the city’s new Long Range Transportation Plan. It’s required by law and will guide the city’s transportation investments over the next three decades, including $181 million in discretionary funding.

“What we hope we’ve achieved (in the plan) is building out a multi-modal system that works for people traveling by all modes, and really focuses on those connections across the region while advancing some of the most important regional projects,” said Jennifer Weigland.

A number of projects didn’t make the list in the new transportation plan, including a new I-90 interchange at Russell Street, widening Mullan Road or building a downtown pedestrian bridge over the Clark Fork River at the Riverfront Triangle.

While the projects are worthy, transportation planners said they would consume too much funding given what’s available over the next 30 years.

“We’re working with a pretty constrained amount of money when you think about this plan going out over 30 years,” Weigland said.

The new transportation plan estimates Missoula receiving around $1.3 billion over the next three decades – funding that represents all sources. About 50% of that will come from federal sources, which generally goes to state or federal highways maintained by the Montana Department of Transportation.

The other 50% will likely come from local funding sources, including the Mountain Line mill levy, impact fees and gas taxes. Of that amount, around 26% is earmarked for maintenance, 32% for transit and 41% for capital improvements.

“We have some decisions around how we’re investing those capital improvement dollars,” said Wilson. “There’s been a shift over the last several decades on where that funding is coming from.”

Without a large infrastructure investment by the state or federal government, Wilson said local municipalities will continue taking on a larger piece of the transportation puzzle – funding that is hard to find.

That recipe has forced some U.S. cities to explore alternative funding sources, such as road user fees, redirecting parking revenue to other needs, or adopting a local option gas tax.

The local option gas tax was authorized by the Montana Legislature in 1979 and capped at 2 cents per gallon to give local jurisdictions a way to address rising infrastructure costs. Missoula voters approved the tax last year, though one Kalispell legislator now wants to repeal it.

“Gas taxes in general are a big chunk of our funding,” Wilson said. “It’s likely to be a dwindling funding source moving forward. But there’s a lot of innovative work going on out there in looking for replacements to a gas tax.”

Without new funding sources for infrastructure and transportation, projects will become harder to fund, Wilson said. The city’s $181 million in discretionary funding over the next 30 years will have to stretch, which is why planners don’t want to allocate the funding to just one or two projects.

“Something like the Russell Street expansion is an $80 to $100 million project. That could be 50% of our funding over 30 years,” Wilson said. “We could do one or two of those projects and that’s if we invested all our funding in them. It’s not really an option without some big infusion of federal dollars to do capacity expansion, where you’re widening roads.”

Members of the Missoula City Council agreed that funding is constrained, and said local municipalities in Montana need to be able to generate funds locally, and have some local control over how their share of transportation funding is spent.

“It’s also a good illustration of how we can’t fully rely on federal funds to meet even a majority of our funding needs,” said council member Jordan Hess. “It should make us concerned about the future state of our infrastructure if we don’t have diversity of funding sources, and don’t have the ability to leverage funding sources at the local level.”