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Russell Street expansion likely delayed due to budget woes

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A funding shortfall in the Montana Department of Transportation and a disagreement in Helena over ways to generate new revenue to pay for the state’s mounting infrastructure needs will delay a number of state road projects, including work set to begin next year on Russell Street. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

A funding shortfall in the Montana Department of Transportation and a disagreement in Helena over ways to generate new revenue to pay for the state’s mounting infrastructure needs will delay a number of state road projects, including work set to begin next year on Russell Street.

On Tuesday, the Governor’s Office confirmed that several capital improvement projects in the greater Missoula area will be impacted by budgetary issues within MDT, including reconstruction of Russell Street from West Broadway to Idaho, and from Idaho to Dakota.

Reconstruction of the Russell Street Bridge, however, will proceed as proposed.

“Russell Street was originally scheduled for an April 13 bid letting, but right now, it would be on hold,” said Dan Villa, budget director for the Governor’s Office. “Critical bridges are not in any way delayed. Bridges will proceed.”

MDT’s funding shortfall and the unwillingness of Republican leaders of the Montana House and Senate to consider new revenues by increasing fuel taxes and allowing a local option tax have Missoula city leaders concerned, along with the 80-plus organizations behind the Montana Infrastructure Coalition.

Darryl James, director of the coalition, said that without appropriate action by the 2017 Legislature, the cuts could have a legacy effect for years to come and leave cities like Missoula with a daunting backlog of needs.

“The most immediate risk is losing hundreds of millions in matching federal highway funds,” James said on Tuesday. “That’s just on the road and bridge side. We cannot continue to underfund Montana’s infrastructure.”

Last week, MDT said it will delay at least $127 million in highway construction projects until May 2017 due to a lack of funds in the state’s Highway Special Revenue Account.

That includes Russell Street in Missoula, along with rehabilitation projects in Seeley Lake and Frenchtown.

In its announcement, MDT told contractors that while it will continue letting bids scheduled for Dec. 8, it will postpone other bids for larger projects until the Legislature adjourns in May.

“MDT has been operating with this deficit for the last number of years,” James said, placing the annual deficit at roughly $20 million. “They’re delaying projects, diverting monies into federal aid projects to leverage Federal Highway Funds, but cutting projects on the secondary highway system. They’re not operating at full program and our secondary system is going to start seeing that decline.”

The mounting needs are expected to fall on the upcoming Legislature, where the Montana Infrastructure Coalition 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 in new revenue for infrastructure improvements. But those efforts may be dead on arrival.

“On the local option and gas taxes, we’ve seen both the (House) Speaker and (Senate) President come out with the blanket statement saying they don’t support any tax increases,” said Villa.” The governor says we’ll have to see what sort of legislation comes out of committee before evaluating it.”

The coalition is also pushing legislation that would enable local governments to leverage private investment through public partnerships. A proposed $1 billion cap on the Coal Tax Trust Fund is also on the table.

New revenue over the $1 billion cap would be directed toward infrastructure needs.

“Montana is in dire need of a new approach and sustainable methods of funding its infrastructure,” James said. “It’s critical that the legislative platform developed by our coalition is successful in the upcoming session. That includes fully funding our highway program.”

Missoula city leaders agree with the coalition’s platform. Last week, the City Council and Mayor John Engen met with western Montana’s legislative delegation to announce the city’s support for an increase in fuel taxes, a local option tax, and tapping the Coal Tax Trust Fund for additional revenue.

Engen said the city welcomes any method of generating additional funding for local infrastructure projects.

“We remain interested in any opportunities in funding that allow us to make infrastructure investments,” Engen said. “The fact is, the areas where there’s significant population growth, we continue to fall further and further behind. These opportunities provide additional funds to get stuff built, and it’s a big deal.”

Villa said the governor remains willing to work with Republican leaders in funding state infrastructure.

“We’re very hopeful the Legislature is willing to work with us, as we have for the last several sessions,” Villa said. “It was a little scary, the blanket statements, saying certain things are off the table.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com