Gazette opinion: Fuelish indecision: Congress slows state road work

Billings Gazette Editorial

by Billings Gazette

Montana’s road construction system is nearly running on empty while Congress fails to fund the federal highway trust.

Ten Montana Department of Transportation projects initially slated to go out for bids last month, have been delayed till July 23. That includes a bridge replacement at Fly Creek near Pompeys Pillar, sidewalks, curb, gutter and street lighting along six blocks of state road in Columbus and road resurfacing in Missoula that was supposed to be finished during summer break. Now these projects will, at best, start about the time university students arrive for the fall semester.

Altogether, more than $36 million in Montana construction is being postponed till late summer while the state hopes and waits for federal funding.

Out of cash on May 31

“It’s all cash dependent,” Montana Transportation Director Mike Tooley told The Gazette this week. “The federal authority to use cash runs out May 31.”

So MDOT has adjusted its bidding schedule to seek bids only on projects it can cover with state funds until the U.S. government reimburses the state.

Montana fuel taxes provide about 13 percent of dollars our state spends on highway construction. The federal government provides 87 percent on most projects, but up to 91 percent on some interstate projects, Tooley said.

Tooley has visited personally with Sen. Jon Tester, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke and their staff members about Montana’s transportation concerns.

“Our delegation clearly understands the issues,” Tooley said.

Tester recently held Montana listening sessions on highway infrastructure, and last week blasted Congress for failing to pass a long-term highway bill.

On Monday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sent letters to state transportation directors telling them that there will be no money after May 31, unless Congress acts. “States will not be reimbursed for the construction costs or receive technical support and will have to shoulder the burden themselves,” according to a U.S. DOT press release.

For Montana, that burden would be unbearable.

In his floor speech, Montana’s senior U.S. senator chided his colleagues for recently passing a budget resolution (he voted no) that calls for “a cut of over $200 billion in highway and transit funding over the next decade.”

Tester said that 40 percent of Montana roads are rated poor or mediocre; adding that highway safety upgrades save lives and directly support 11,000 Montana jobs.

“China will spend more than $400 billion on transportation infrastructure this year,” Tester said. “This is about eight times more that the U.S. will spend on the Highway Trust Fund. How do we expect to compete in the global economy if we aren’t willing to make the investments?”

Update fuel taxes

There’s no lack of workable ideas for funding America’s transportation infrastructure. The problem is a lack of political will to raise the federal fuel taxes that fund infrastructure. The gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon was last raised in 1997. A series of small, annual increases in the tax and indexing future increases to the Consumer Price Index would refuel the fund.

Congress must act this month to avert a crisis that would bring highway projects to a screeching halt in all 50 states. Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats in both chambers need to agree on a plan to maintain adequate, uninterrupted transportation funding for the next several years. Such a plan should be on President Obama’s desk before lawmakers’ August vacation and Obama should sign it immediately.

We agree with the American Trucking Associations, which called on Congress this week to quickly pass a short extension of the federal highway program while continuing to work on a long-term bill.

As ATA First Vice Chairman Pat Thomas, vice president at UPS, said: “We need Congress to pass a short-term patch and then immediately take into consideration a long-term highway bill – a five- or six-year bill that will provide the additional capacity that we need in this economy. We can’t afford any further delay.”


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