Finally, a measure of highway certainty for Montana

by Billings Gazette

After years of passing patches that lasted only months or weeks, Congress finally delivered a multi-year Highway Bill.

That’s great news, especially for Montana, because our vast, sparsely populated state depends on federal funding for about 87 percent of our highway construction budget. The other 13 percent comes from the state’s 27 cents per gallon fuel tax. Few other states lean so heavily on federal support.

H.R.22 passed with strong bipartisan support, garnering the votes of every member of both the Montana and Wyoming delegations.
“For the most part, it’s a very good bill for Montana,” Jim Skinner of the Montana Department of Transportation said last week from Helena. The legislation (quickly signed into law by President Obama) includes small increases for inflation. It maintains state authority to select projects and continues transit funding for 40 Montana communities, including the Billings MET buses.

Skinner credited Montana’s delegation, Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke for their work.

“They did a really good job protecting Montana’s rural interests,” he said.

No More Construction Delays

“The five-year authorization allows us stability in our project delivery and planning process,” Skinner said. “It makes it so we don’t have to juggle projects.” Earlier this year, MDOT had to delay the start of some projects because full funding from the federal government was uncertain.

However, the new law doesn’t include major funding to tackle aging bridges or other inadequate infrastructure.
“It’s not going to allow us to turn the tide on deteriorating infrastructure,” Skinner said.

According to a statement from Daines, 46 percent of Montana’s 74,000 miles of public roads are in mediocre to poor condition, a situation that costs the average Montana motorist about $484 per year in additional vehicle maintenance.

Daines said Montana has 914 bridges that are structurally deficient or obsolete, but only 216 are on the National Highway System. He said the other 698 will now have great access to federal funds for repairs.

Exports and crop insurance

Tester noted that the five-year authorization invests nearly $2.3 billion in Montana transportation, increasing highway funding by 5.1 percent this fiscal year.

Tester also supported reauthorization of the Export Import Bank, which was added to the Highway Bill. The Gazette had urged the Montana delegation to support the bank because it pays for itself and makes U.S. goods more competitive in the world market.

For his part, Zinke touted the crop insurance funding that was added to the highway bill. Crop insurance subsidies had been left out of the budget deal negotiated in October by then House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama.

Getting a multi-year Highway Bill is critical. However, the funding gimmicks don’t deserve as much praise. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget points out that the bill increases spending without producing any new resources for the government. Instead, it will transfer the Federal Reserve’s capital surplus to the Treasury. The bill also relies on selling oil from the nation’s strategic reserve at a time when prices are relatively low. The new law authorizes a higher level of transportation spending for five years, but even with these gimmicks, the funding only covers three years. Some of the funding it relies on will be realized over the next 10 years, yet all of the money in the bill will be spent in the next three years.

The FAST Act is a shortcut that doesn’t take the nation to sustainable funding for our vital road system. Congress and Obama rejected the obvious need to modestly increase the federal per gallon fuel tax and index it to inflation. Making travelers pay the cost of maintaining public roads is the fairest long-term solution.

At least Montana has a transportation program funded for three construction seasons. That’s a much better deal than usual from Capitol Hill.