Great Falls-area officials discuss needs for infrastructure fixes
Sen. Jon Tester met with Great Falls-area officials Friday to talk to them about infrastructure needs and was given more than a few suggestions about funding such projects to take with him back to Washington, D.C.
They included: Make it broader, make it constant and make it happen.
And the meeting took on something of the aura of telling horror stories around the campfire as many of the attendees in the roundtable discussion offered stories of millions in needs and not enough money to fix them.
Cascade County Commissioner Jane Weber talked about turning paved roads back into gravel because gravel roads are cheaper to maintain. Great Falls officials spoke of deferred maintenance and a crumbling façade to the civic center.
Tales also were told of underground pipes bursting at Montana ExpoPark, bridges that needed to be widened, straightened or heightened, fire station pipes that have caused erosion damage, budget cuts and few ways to finance needed repairs.
And Brett Doney, president of the Great Falls Development Authority, said he believed the biggest challenge facing the state was “too many people not making enough money.”
The meeting at the Great Falls Public Schools office was in the shadow of Tuesday’s State of the Union address by President Donald Trump in which he said he wanted to put together a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill.
“It is also time to repair our crumbling infrastructure,” Trump said.
“Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments, and where, when appropriate, tapping into private sector investment to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit,” Trump said.
A bill is expected by this spring.
Tester had put out a letter Jan. 11 asking people for infrastructure suggestions on improving roads, bridges, schools, affordable housing, water systems, hospitals and broadband.
Montana’s infrastructure needs have been estimated in the billions, more than $14.8 billion in roads alone, according to a 2014 report by the American Society of County Engineers.
“We have an opportunity coming up with a potential infrastructure bill at the federal level,” Tester told nearly a dozen people sitting at the table as he jotted notes onto a tablet.
Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly said funds are short as Great Falls commissioners were able to allocate only $1.2 million for $24 million in maintenance project requests.
Kelly said there was a danger to delaying much-needed maintenance, adding it was the kind of issue that “doesn’t go away. It gets more and more expensive.”
Weber described Cascade County as a “small, large county” that does not generate the funding of Montana’s large counties.
She said buckets were placed under the roof of the county’s “beautiful, historic courthouse” until $4 million were made in roof repairs.
She noted tax revenues have risen “a little, but not enough to meet our needs.”
Weber said the county wants to replace Armington Bridge over Belt Creek, but not for the reason people would expect.
“It’s a fine bridge, but it hangs low over Belt Creek,” she said, noting the bridge was structurally sound.
Officials said debris backs up and causes major maintenance problems and officials want to raise it above the traditional high-flood water level.
Tester said after the meeting an infrastructure bill could mean a real opportunity for economic growth.
He said he hoped the federal government could put something together without a lot of red tape.
“There are plenty of needs out there,” he said.
Kelly said while the city’s population growth is stable and the tax base increases each year, but not enough to keep up with the pace of our projects.
Great Falls City Manager Greg Doyon asked Tester to keep in mind that local governments have trouble coming up with funds.
“I’ve never seen a fully funded capital improvement plan,” he said, adding the city does not fix things until they break.
Doyon also said projects are not always shovel ready should funding suddenly become available.
“It takes some time on our end,” he said.
Doney said Tax Increment Funding was used for a rail project. That is where future property tax revenue increases are diverted from a defined area toward an economic development project.
He said TIF was “one of the few tools where communities in Montana control their own destiny.”
Montanans can send their infrastructure priorities to Tester by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.