The price for crude oil on the global market has skyrocketed since last year. The higher cost of oil, gas and transportation nationwide is having an impact on local budgets and services. 

Missoula Public Works maintains and improves infrastructure systems, which provide water, sewer, stormwater and transportation services. The higher price for fuel, coupled with inflation, is limiting services and putting a strain on the budget for public works at the city and county level.

“We’re certainly feeling the effect of higher prices in general,” said Jeremy Keene, director of Public Works for the city. “All of our material prices have gone up significantly in the past year.”

The higher price of fuel not only makes construction and running heavy machinery more costly, but also increases the price of oil derived products and other materials like asphalt, tires, lubricant and patching material for potholes.

Public works at the city and county level are currently working on the Mullan BUILD project, which is facing slight delays due to higher-than-expected material and fuel costs. The project will include the construction of several new roads between Mullan Road and Broadway, improving access to current and future homes and businesses.

The Mullan BUILD project began construction in April of this year. The timeline of the project was originally a bit more ambitious, but the work has had to be cut back to fit within budget.

"We deferred things like sidewalks and landscaping so we could build the basic road and utility infrastructure now,” said Keene. “We will have to come back and complete those other elements in the future as more funding becomes available.”   

They Mullan BUILD project could be impacted by rising costs. (WGM Group photo)
They Mullan BUILD project could be impacted by rising costs. (WGM Group photo)

Another area of Public Works that has seen some changes this year is the dust abatement program. Missoula County generally hires a contractor each year to put down a product called magnesium chloride on all of the county’s unpaved roads. Magnesium chloride draws moisture from the air, easing wear and tear on gravel roads and suppressing dust.

This year, however, Public Works did not hire a contractor for dust abatement and was able to cover roughly 200 miles of gravel roads in Missoula County.

“We weren’t going to be able to afford dust abatement with the prices we received,” said Shane Stack, director of Public Works for Missoula County. “What we essentially did was convert a water truck into a distributer and rented a tanker.”

It turned out that Public Works was able to purchase the magnesium chloride and apply it to all county roads for a lower price than they would have paid a contractor.

The budgets for public works projects at the city and county level are being strained, and both Keene and Stack said they are working on ways to come up with the extra funding needed. Stack said that Missoula County Public Works has already spent an additional $117,000 on fuel this year through all its different programs.

A majority of funding for the projects comes from property taxes, which could see an increase this budgeting season to cover the rising costs of maintaining roads, bridges and infrastructure. Other options may include applying for federal grant money or creating Rural Special Improvement Districts (RSID).

With an RSID, funding for improvement and maintenance of infrastructure, such as streets, would be generated by affected property owners as long as there is majority support.

Missoula County voters approved a 2-cent per gallon gas tax in the summer of 2020 that generated $1.1 million for Public Works projects between the county and the city. But the tax was eliminated by Gov. Greg Gianforte and 2021 legislature.

The city and county are weighing their options for increasing funding and managing their budgets as prices for fuel and materials remain high.

“In our budget going forward, we're asking for inflationary increases to make up for the cost of higher prices,” said Keene.