With a $16 million bridge project unfolding behind him, Sen. Jon Tester on Thursday lauded a bipartisan infrastructure package, which he described as a “once in a century” opportunity.

In Missoula, Tester said the bill would help uncork the nation's backlog of infrastructure needs – a backlog estimated in Missoula alone at $250 million.

“We've been living off our parents' and grandparents' infrastructure for far too long,” Tester said. “This is truly a once-in-a-century investment in infrastructure in this country. It will be one of the most impactful, non-emergency bills ever passed in this nation's history.”

Tester was among 10 Senators – five from each party – to craft a “traditional” infrastructure bill in June. The $1.2 trillion package includes $579 billion in new spending and does not raise taxes.

Rather, Tester said, the measure would be funded with unused unemployment insurance from the CARES Act, revenue from the IRS tax gap and some other sources.

“I think (Sen. Chuck) Schumer wants to bring the bill to the floor on July 19, which is a really tight timeline but I appreciate it. It gets this thing going,” Tester said. “In states like Montana, we've got winter to contend with. The quicker we can get these dollars out there and allocated, the quicker we can start moving dirt.”

Supporters of the infrastructure package on Thursday praised the deal and urged members of Congress to pass it. The package would provide jobs and modernize dated infrastructure, including roads, bridges and airports, water infrastructure, power grids and broadband.

“I spend a lot of time on the highways going up and down the road, and America is on the move,” said Deb Poteet, owner of Poteet Construction. “The funding in this package is a good investment.”

Missoula International Airport is midway through the construction of a $100 million passenger terminal. The first phase, estimated at $70 million, was buoyed in part by a $5.9 million infusion from the CARES Act passed by Congress during the pandemic.

That funding helped keep the project moving forward as revenue dwindled. The infrastructure bill now before Congress would enable the airport to move into Phase 2 sooner rather than later. As it stands, the airport cannot meet passenger needs and growing demand for service.

“The first phase is four gates, which is half of what we need. Hopefully we can keep moving forward,” said deputy airport director Brian Ellestad. “We've secured funding for the first phase and are designing the second phase. This could keep everyone rolling and keep contractors busy on site. We're growing so fast right now, we need the space.”

City Council member Jordan Hess said the city can't complete "transformative" projects, such as the Higgins Avenue bridge and the Mullan BUILD project, without federal support. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
City Council member Jordan Hess said the city can't complete "transformative" projects, such as the Higgins Avenue bridge and the Mullan BUILD project, without federal support. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

City officials also praised the pending infrastructure package, calling it critical to building a “quality, functional, safe and reliable” system. The package would have a multi-generational impact, according to City Council member Jordan Hess.

“The city has cataloged about $250 million in infrastructure needs,” said Hess. “That's not a pie-in-the-sky wish list of infrastructure. It's the nuts and bolts – streets and sidewalks, utility lines, the things that make our cities functions.”

Thursday's event played out below the Higgins Avenue Bridge, which is undergoing a $16 million renovation to repair aging infrastructure and add modern “21st century” needs, as Tester put it.

Hess noted that local funding alone couldn't complete such a project. The city is limited to property taxes on the revenue it generates. Federal investment is critical, Hess said.

“We can't do these transformative projects without the help of the federal government,” Hess said.