Russell Street cancellation frustrates Missoula officials

Construction crews on Friday continued work to rehabilitate the crumbling Madison Street Bridge in Missoula, which is partially closed due to safety issues. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

A backlog of infrastructure needs and the cancellation of a high-profile road project in Missoula has increased frustration among city leaders, who like many other Montana mayors and county commissioners are looking to Helena for relief.

Earlier this week, officials in the Governor’s Office confirmed to the Missoula Current that the Russell Street reconstruction project will be delayed due to a budget shortfall within the Montana Department of Transportation.

The project is one of nearly three dozen road and bridge projects now in jeopardy across Montana – a backlog that carries an estimated price tag of more than $140 million.

“We’ve spent 17 years now talking about Russell Street, and we’re on the cusp of building the thing,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said. “We were supposed to be on the ground in the summer of 2017. The idea that we’re not is frustrating to me. It goes to the credibility of government and planning. It’s something that needs to get done.”

Seated in his office this week, Engen said the city’s infrastructure needs continue to mount, and funding isn’t keeping pace with growth across the Missoula metropolitan area. And the city isn’t alone.

In October, the Montana Infrastructure Coalition released a series of reports identifying needs across the state. Included in the material was a 2012 Transportation Needs Survey conducted by MDT, which found that $14.8 billion was needed to restore Montana’s roads and bridges.

This week, however, MDT said it will delay roughly $140 million in highway projects until at least May 2017 due to a lack of funds in the state’s Highway Special Revenue Account. Whether it’s roads and bridges, water or wastewater, Engen said the state must find a long-term funding solution.

“Those are all just critical to the survival of our communities,” he said. “Unless we make investments in that stuff, we’re going to continue to fall behind. We’ll have anything ranging from a crisis to a catastrophe on our hands, and those are difficult to recover from.”

To address the funding shortfall and the backlog of needs, the Montana Infrastructure Coalition and its diverse membership will push for a number of bills intended to generate additional revenue for state critical infrastructure projects.

Among them, the coalition will lobby for a local option tax and a .10-cent increase in fuel taxes, which would generate roughly $80 million annually in new revenue for roadway improvements.

But those efforts may be dead on arrival, as the Republican caucus will likely oppose any tax increase, including a gas tax. According to the city, the state hasn’t raised its fuel tax of 27.75 cents per gallon since 1994.

Despite early opposition to an increase in fuel taxes, however, Engen has confidence in the Montana Infrastructure Coalition’s ability to work with members of the Legislature toward an agreeable solution.

“The folks who have come to the table are the right people to allow us to have meaningful conversations with legislators that we hope is beyond the partisan politics that come up session after session,” Engen said. “The folks who are part of this coalition really cross party lines and geographic divides, and all the stuff that tends to divide us in Montana politics.”

Earlier this year, the Missoula City Council’s Public Works Committee began discussing a potential gasoline tax of 2 cents per gallon. The move is permitted under a 1979 state law and would, if enacted, require support from the Missoula County Board of Commissioners.

But Missoula tried to adopt the tax twice before, once in 1994 and again in 2012. It was defeated by voters the first time and county commissioners the second time. A local fuel tax could generate around $630,000 annually, according to city estimates.

“It has to be a function of the board of commissioners agreeing to place that question on the ballot, and we haven’t had that conversation yet,” Engen said. “Poll numbers suggest to us, provided that we can talk about projects, people aren’t opposed to that two penny gas tax.”

Sections of the crumbling Madison Street bridge have been covered above the Kim Williams Trail to protect pedestrians and bicyclists. (Missoula Current)

City leaders have questioned whether the local option to boost fuel taxes by 2 cents is even workable. Engen would rather see action taken at the legislative level, and he’s banking on the coalition, along with the Montana League of Cities and Towns and the Montana Association of Counties, to make headway in Helena during the next session.

“If we looked at implementing a gas tax statewide, and a prorated share coming back to communities, it makes a lot of sense. It gets rid of a lot of barriers,” Engen said. “We’ll see if there’s any energy there. The coalition can provide fact-based arguments to legislators to aid in their choices.”

Advocates of a bump in fuel taxes and a local option tax point to the benefits, saying they would help the state and local municipalities capture revenue from the 11 million people who visit Montana each year.

In Missoula, more than 2.5 million visitors pass through the city each year. A fuel tax or local option tax would help capture some of that spending and direct it back toward local infrastructure needs, Engen said.

“We don’t check your ID if you need medical aid from fire, or police assistance, and we don’t check to see if your rental car is from somewhere else,” Engen said. “You still get to use our roads and enjoy our parks and frankly, we should capture some of that.”

Engen believes an increase would have to come with a reduction in property taxes. He also said that infrastructure is an issue across the state, bridging the divide between urban and rural Montana.

“We just can’t let this stuff crumble, and we certainly can’t let this stuff crumble because we think we’re exercising power or creating winners and losers,” Engen said. “Fundamentally, everyone’s a loser if we can’t figure out a way to cooperate on this stuff.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com