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Missoula fabricators, engineers ready to tackle infrastructure work

Sen. Jon Tester talks with employees at Felco Industries in Missoula on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. The fabrication company expects to benefit from work created by the bipartisan infrastructure bill. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

With the infrastructure bill signed into law, one of its architects in Sen. Jon Tester joined Missoula city officials and a manufacturing firm on Tuesday to promote what’s anticipated to be a $3 billion investment in Montana’s future.

The funding, which could become available by the spring construction season, will provide needed investment in the state’s aging highways and bridges, its airports, water systems and broadband.

“We’ve been living off our parents and grandparents infrastructure for far too long,” Tester told fabricators at Felco Industries. “Washington has kicked the can down the road repeatedly through multiple administrations. There’s been a whole lot of talk about infrastructure but nothing has gotten done, until last week.”

The $1.2 trillion package, passed by both Republicans and Democrats, is expected to create 800,000 new jobs in the U.S. The legislation requires that all iron, steel and materials used for the work be produced in America.

That will have positive impacts on U.S. manufacturers and engineers, including those in Montana who produce materials needed for infrastructure work. Felco manufactures attachments and tools for construction equipment.

“It’s circular,” Felco CEO Shawn Pabst said of the impacts. “It helps the contractors, enabling them to create these great-paying jobs. They in turn need our help to build and produce these attachments and products, and that allows us to hire and provide these wages locally.”

The legislation renews existing programs and provides $550 billion in new investments to repair crumbling bridges and roads, update the nation’s energy grid and create a network of charging stations for electric vehicles, which have become central to the evolving auto industry.

Rep. Matt Rosendale voted against the bill, saying it was “irresponsible for Congress to force the American taxpayer to fund an infrastructure bill that barely touches on infrastructure.” However, Tester – who joined Republicans in writing the legislation – said the bill is paid for and doesn’t raise taxes.

Rather, it makes investments where they’re sorely needed, he said. Aside from standard infrastructure, it extends broadband to rural areas, which is expected to boost local economies.

“If we don’t make these kinds of investments, you can’t expect us to maintain our position in the world,” Tester said. “This will create a lot of good paying jobs, help us maintain our economic advantage over China, and it’s going to lower costs for Montana families.”

“It really does come down to dollars for infrastructure investments, paired with innovative design,” said Melissa Matassa-Stone, CEO of the WGM Group. “I know the engineering community is ready to effectively deliver on these dollars.” (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

In 2014, the American Society of Civil Engineers completed its first report card grading the nation’s infrastructure. Montana received a score of “C minus,” with half its roads rated in poor to mediocre condition and 7.3% of its bridge decks rated as poor and structurally deficient.

The state’s stormwater system received a “D,” the state’s dams a “C minus,” and the state’s drinking water systems a “C minus.” It was estimated that $15 billion was needed over the next decade just to maintain the state’s roadway system, and projected funding would only meet 33% of those needs.

But that was before the infrastructure bill was passed.

“It really does come down to dollars for infrastructure investments, paired with innovative design,” said Melissa Matassa-Stone, CEO of the WGM Group. “We have a large number of bridges across Montana nearing the end of their design life. I know the engineering community is ready to effectively deliver on these dollars.”

The City of Missoula is also poised to invest the funding into water system improvements, transportation and transit. Missoula remains Montana’s second-largest city and stands as one of the state’s fastest growing communities.

But even so, funding hasn’t been enough to keep pace with the city’s growing infrastructure needs.

“We expect millions of dollars to come our way to support the work we’re doing, particularly around transportation, transit, water and wastewater,” Mayor John Engen said. “We’ve been operating without a long-term transportation bill forever. This gives us security moving forward with projects. There’s predictability that comes with these resources, and that lets us get much further down the road.”

Engen: Infrastructure funds to bolster city water, transportation, transit plans

The bill includes the following:

Transportation

  • Approximately $2.82 billion for Montana highways.
  • Montana will also receive approximately $225 million in additional funding for a new bridge initiative to replace and repair bridges in poor condition.
  • Approximately $164 million for Montana over five years to bolster public transit infrastructure, a roughly 30 percent increase.
    • The portion of bus funds set aside for rural areas was increased.
    • Funds to address highway safety and motor carrier safety were significantly increased, enabling Montana to save lives and reduce injuries on our roads.
  • Approximately $144 million for Montana airports.
  • A portion of the Haulers of Agriculture and Livestock Safety (HAULS) Act of 2021, which cuts burdensome hours of service requirements that can prevent ag and livestock haulers from doing their jobs safely, and gives them the flexibility to ensure more of Montana’s world-class products can make it to market.
  • Tester’s DRIVE Safe Act, which creates a pilot program that lifts federal regulations that prevent Montana truck drivers under 21 years of age from transporting goods across state lines and establishes a new training initiative for 18 to 20-year-old truck drivers.
  • Tester’s Right Track Act and Blocked Railroad Crossing Bill, which improve safety at rural train crossings and addresses instances of blocked highway-railroad crossings across the U.S.
  • $15 million to study Amtrak long-distance passenger rail travel. This includes funding and authorization to form working groups, like the Greater Northwest Passenger Rail Working Group, to study and advocate for increased access to long-distance passenger rail travel.

Water

  • $1 billion to complete all authorized rural water projects through the Bureau of Reclamation, including Fort Peck/Dry Prairie, Rocky Boys/North Central, and Musselshell-Judith rural water systems.
    • Approximately $198 million for Rocky Boys/North Central
    • Approximately $56 million for Musselshell-Judith
    • Approximately $17 million for Fort Peck/Dry Prairie
  • Up to $100 million for rehabilitating the Milk River Project.
  • $2.5 billion to complete all authorized Indian water rights settlements, including settlements for Montana Tribes.
  • Clarifies that American Rescue Plan state and local fiscal recovery funds may be used towards the state or federal cost share to rehabilitate Bureau of Reclamation water infrastructure.
  • $3.5 billion for Indian Health Service Sanitation Construction program, filling all outstanding needs in the program nationwide.
  • This includes roughly $40 million in water, sewage, and sanitation projects for the Blackfeet Tribe.
  • $11.2 billion in grants for states and Tribes to reclaim abandoned mine lands. Montana is expected to receive at least $20 million, over six times the state’s annual federal Abandoned Mine Land distribution.

Broadband

  • $42.45 billion grant program for broadband deployment to areas of the country lacking access to internet service. The program will be distributed in the following manner:
    • $4.2 billion of which is set aside for high-cost, geographically-challenged areas that are especially difficult and expensive to deploy broadband infrastructure to.
    • A minimum allocation of $100 million to each state distributed during the planning and proposal stage. Up to $5 million in funding to support state broadband office activities, including planning, coordination, and grant administration.
    • Additional funding allocated to each state using a formula based on that state’s total unserved population.
  • $2 billion for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, which will help Tribal entities with broadband deployment, digital inclusion, workforce development, telehealth, and distance learning.
  • $2 billion to the U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, which provide loans and grants to fund broadband service deployment and maintenance in rural areas.
  • $14.2 billion for the Affordable Connectivity Program, which builds off of the current Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBB) by expanding eligibility and including consumer protection guardrails to prevent upselling. As of September 27, 2021, 9,701 households in Montana have enrolled in this program to get help with their internet bills.
    • Includes additional consumer protection provisions that safeguard against digital redlining and price-gouging.
    • Senator Tester fought to make sure participating households can apply the benefit to any internet service plan of their choosing.
  • The Telecommunications Skilled Workforce Development Act, which will help address the workforce needs of the telecommunications industry to ramp up the human resources necessary in order to deploy broadband infrastructure efficiently and effectively.

Border Security 

  • $3.85 billion for Land Ports of Entry to modernize and secure the Northern and Southern border.

Fire

  • Tester-Moran bill to extend the IRS tax filing deadlines in Fire Management Assistance Grants for areas after significant fires
  • $3.37 billion for reducing wildfire risk, including:
    • $500 million for Forest Service Community Defense Grants to support community-led efforts to improve community wildfire readiness, planning actions, and removing vegetation.
    • $500 million for prescribed fires to reduce fuel loads and large fire risk.
    • $500 million to do mechanical thinning and timber harvest to promote fire-resilient stands
    • $500 million to develop fire control points, including through the creation of fuelbreaks
    • $200 million to remove flammable vegetation for the creation of biochar or innovative woodproducts, with a note for agencies to consider working with youth and conservation corps, and engage with Tribes and veterans.
    • $200 million for post-fire restoration activities
    • $100 million for Interior and Forest Service to conduct staff training and planning work to support wildland fire and vegetation treatment operations
    • $100 million for Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program projects
    • $20 million for the Joint Fire Science program (which supports research at UM and MSU)
  • Includes the bipartisan REPLANT Act freeing up additional Forest Service funding for reforestation activities, and provides $450 million to rehabilitate and restore burned areas.

Resiliency (Flood, Drought)

  • $7 billion for Army Corps of Engineers infrastructure priorities to improve flood mitigation
  • $350 million of that for Army Corps CAP funding which includes Section 205 levee projects. Senator Tester secured a $100 million increase for the CAP program, and secured a provision to allow the Army Corps to waive cost-share requirements for economically-disadvantaged communities.
  • $3.5 billion for FEMA Flood Mitigation Assistance program.
  • $1 billion for the FEMA Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) Program. This is a pre-disaster mitigation program, supporting states, local communities, tribes and territories undertaking hazard mitigation projects to reduce the risks they face from disasters and natural hazards.
  • $2.2 billion for the Aging Infrastructure Account, including to The Bureau of Reclamation for water infrastructure projects across the West that are in need of major upgrades or replacement.
  • $500 million for the Western Area Power Administration’s power purchase and transmission activities.