Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) More than $2.8 billion in federal funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal has been directed to Montana over the last few years, and Missoula has netted its share of the pie, boosting a growing list of projects.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Monday praised the law as both an overdue investment in the nation's infrastructure and a major job-builder. Local officials agreed, saying “but for” federal funding, many projects would sit on the shelf collecting dust.

“From my view, the funding that enabled the airport to modernize and projects that have recently been funded in the Missoula area are transformative for Missoula,” said Mayor Andrea Davis. “There is no way that city, county or state funding could move along major community goals like we can when we have federal funding.”

Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal in late 2021. The legislation was crafted by five Republicans, including Sens. Mitt Romney and Rob Portman, and five Democrats including Sens. Jon Tester and Kyrsten Sinema.

According to Buttigieg, the bill has since funded 51,000 projects across the country and, last September, created 8 million construction jobs. The impact of the legislation in Missoula has been transformative, Davis said.

“If you think about the way our communities have been built out and grown over decades, we now have these serious pinch points with railroad and highway and real safety concerns,” she said. “Federal dollars that do these transformative projects really add to the quality of life for all Missoulians.”

Funding local projects

The city and county over the last year have been on a hot streak in terms of landing federal grants. In late 2021, the city landed an $850,000 federal grant to begin planning the future of Brooks Street, which will convert the roadway to a bus rapid transit system and address pedestrian safety.

Last month, the city also received a $24 million grant to modernize the transportation network in downtown Missoula. That project, now years in planning, will convert Front and Main streets back to two-way traffic, improve the riverfront trail system and make safety improvements on Higgins Avenue, among other things.

In March, the county also found success when it received a $24 million grant to address the Highway 200 corridor through East Missoula. Plans include streetscape improvements like bike lanes, sidewalks, boulevards and lighting. They also include a roundabout at the I-90 interchange and work on the railroad bridge to create more room for both pedestrians and passing vehicles.

“The project we've been focused on is the Highway 200 corridor that's been discussed for decades in terms of infrastructure improvements,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “If it weren't for the grant we just received, there wouldn't be what we consider a transformative project.”

Federal funding helped place $13 million in infrastructure in the Sxwptqyen area of Missoula., laying the foundation for thousands of new housing units. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Federal funding helped place $13 million in infrastructure in the Sxwptqyen area of Missoula., laying the foundation for thousands of new housing units. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The infrastructure bill also funds water projects, energy projects and other modes of transportation. Buttigieg on Monday said Missoula Montana Airport had received roughly $41 million in funding from the program to help advance its terminal project. Earlier this year, one grant award enabled the airport to commit to the third phase of development, saving funding since construction crews were already staged on site completing Phase 2.

Mountain Line also benefited last summer when it received a $39 million federal grant to construct a new maintenance and operations facility. The agency has been crammed into its old facility for the past four decades and was unable to accommodate its growing fleet of electric buses.

“That is also going to add to their long-range goal, getting a faster pace of turning their busses into 100% electric,” said Davis. “We would not be able to move these initiatives along without that funding. These things are all tied into our local plans, including our local land-use plans and local long-range transportation plans.”

Planning for success

Davis and other city officials have attributed the city's planning efforts to its success in netting federal funding to build a project once its designed. The planning effort can take years to complete. But without the plans, there's little chance of landing federal support.

The city is now planning the Brooks Street project in hopes of landing federal funding. Several years ago, the city and county also found success after master planning the greater Mullan area. The work helped the project win $13 million in federal funding.

The county is now taking a similar approach in planning a large infrastructure project at the Wye. The area has been identified for future growth and, according to current estimates, could accommodate 15,000 homes and hundreds of new businesses in the decades to come.

While federal funding will be needed to pull it off, county officials have high hopes for when the time comes to apply based upon recent successes.

“First, we have a concentration of talent in Missoula. Second, the federal government made this money available and third, our senior senator (Tester) worked his tail off,” Commissioner Josh Slotnick said of the recent grants. “The stars have aligned in a way I haven't seen before.”