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Road maintenance project in Seeley Lake funded by Missoula’s local option gas tax

Swimmers enjoy a sunny summer day at Salmon Lake in 2020. Seeley Lake, a popular tourist town just up the road, is among the first beneficiaries of road maintenance funded by Missoula County’s local option gas tax. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

While some members of the Montana Legislature look to strip Missoula County of its 2-cent per gallon gas tax and ensure no other county can adopt the tool, Seeley Lake for now will benefit from the revenue the tax has produced since it was adopted by voters last year.

Missoula County on Tuesday approved a $160,000 contract with Riverside Construction to chip seal nearly six miles of roads in Seeley Lake. The money comes from the local option gas tax, a tool adopted by the Legislature in 1979 to help counties address their local infrastructure needs.

“Without that, we probably wouldn’t be getting that work done,” said Missoula County engineer Eric Dickson. “For the first time in 20 years, we’re going to start a chip seal program thanks to the local option gas tax.”

The county, backed by the Montana Infrastructure Coalition, the Montana Contractors Association, the Missoula Realtors Association and various other lobby groups, are working to defend the local option gas tax against one Republican’s effort to repeal it.

Missoula County anticipates that the 2-cent tax will generate around $1.2 million a year, with around $450,000 of the funds generated by tourists. The city and county of Missoula will split the revenue equally and apply it directly to road maintenance and construction.

“It’s been over 20 years since we’ve been abler to provide this (chip seal) as a preventative issue,” said Dickson. “We’re stuck in a cycle of overlays and reconstructs. With that asphalt not having a seal and protective cover on it, we’re not getting the true life out of it that we could be.”

The Montana Legislature in 2017 also approved an increase in the statewide gas tax, known as the Bridge and Road Safety and Accountability Act, or BaRSAA. But while the infrastructure lobby and others pushed for a 10-cent increase to the statewide gas tax, the Legislature approved an increase of just 4 cents.

According to the county, it only receives around $450,000 a year from BaRSAA funds, which are distributed statewide based upon a formula. In contrast, the 2-cent local gas tax is expected to net around $1.2 million annually, and that’s money that stays in Missoula County to improve local roads.

If the Legislature repeals the local option tax, advocates say, it will make it harder for counties to keep up with the rising cost of maintenance and infrastructure.

It would also eliminate one of the only ways that counties can provide matching funds to federal grants, such as the recent $13 million federal BUILD grant for the Mullan project, which required several million dollars in matching funds.

“I have nothing but contempt for our legislators who are trying to nullify our local option gas tax, which is the will of the voters in Missoula County,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “The fruits of that labor (in Seeley Lake) are providing some much needed and long overdue maintenance services in the outlying areas of Missoula County.”

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