A trio of Missoula political and business leaders made an effort Thursday afternoon to emphasize one reason they are concerned about the outcome of the midterm elections: infrastructure funding.
Planes flew overhead and construction noise from the Polley Square development drifted into McCormick Park as six people listened to Missoula Mayor John Engen, Ward 3 City Council member Gwen Jones and WGM Group president Brent Campbell, all Democrats, detailed why they support Sen. Jon Tester over his Republican challenger, state auditor Matt Rosendale.
Highway projects are funded by a combination of state and federal money under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015, which was backed by Tester.
The act came in response to the decline in America’s aging infrastructure, highlighted in a number of reports, including the Infrastructure Report Card published every four years by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The 2014 Report Card gave Montana a “C” because almost 50 percent of its major roads were in poor to mediocre condition and 40 percent of gravel roads were in poor or failed condition.
As a result, Montana had the third highest fatality rate in the nation due to a backlog of transportation projects waiting for funding.
Citing the $95 million in transportation projects underway this year in western Montana alone, Engen said they wouldn’t have happened without federal money from the FAST Act.
“Supporting these public projects means voting the right way,” Engen said.
While Missoula is full of bustling infrastructure projects, Engen said it’s all being paid for with money that was appropriated two to five years ago. If the city wants to keep up with its growing population, it’s going to need more money down the road.
Other Montana towns not experiencing the same growth surge as Missoula need the money even more.
Engen’s claim is supported by Montana Department of Transportation projections estimating that over the next four years, the state will need $506 million for road construction alone and $257 million for bridge construction.
Campbell said most of the work that WGM Group does is related to infrastructure, so his employees depend on projects supported in part by federal money.
“Highway infrastructure funding got our company through the downturn of 2008,” Campbell said. “We look for a 7:1 return for private sector investment that comes after the public investment. We want to build a $30 million Russell Street that results in a $210 million revitalization of that entire neighborhood.
“We’re working on the next 10 to 20 years; that’s not going to happen overnight. We can’t rest on our laurels right now. There will be a time when the economy isn’t booming again.”
Jones said her three years on the City Council have taught her that saying no is easy. But public service isn’t about doing what’s easy – it’s about deciding what is best for Montanans now and in the future.
And infrastructure isn’t just roads and bridges – now it’s also broadband internet service, something Tester has regularly tried to secure for rural Montanans.
In June, Tester wrote a letter to Senate leaders, telling them the Senate should not take its August break if, as Republicans claimed, no time was available to consider infrastructure spending.
“We are living off our grandparents’ investment in infrastructure, and with each passing day, it becomes more difficult to compete in a global economy with outdated schools, roads, bridges, drinking water systems, and access to high-speed internet – especially in rural states like Montana,” Tester wrote.
Jones said that, unlike Tester, Rosendale was unlikely to support investments in infrastructure.
She cited his no vote on House Bill 439, a 2011 bill that would have created a state government bond to fund capital improvement projects, including buildings and classrooms at Montana’s universities and improving the Montana Veterans Home in Silver Bow County. Rosendale was in the minority, as the bill passed the House with a vote of 72-25, although it ultimately failed under the weight of amendments.
“He voted against a bipartisan bonding bill for infrastructure that set Montana back by decades. (Sen. Tester) has consistently voted for infrastructure and investing in our community,” Jones said.
However, when Rosendale was in the Montana Senate in 2015, he helped craft Senate Bill 416, another infrastructure bond bill, although the priority was on natural resource extraction projects. Less than a third of the money would have funded roads, and the bill died in the House.