Missoulian: Sen. Tester touts $579B infrastructure proposal in Missoula visit

by David Erickson

Missoula has $250 million in unmet infrastructure needs, according to city council member Jordan Hess.

“That’s not pie-in-the-sky, wish-list infrastructure,” Hess explained. “That is nuts and bolts of streets, sidewalks, utility lines, the things that make our cities function. And, you know, it’s roads and sidewalks and transit that get people to work and to medical appointments.”

Hess joined U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Monday at Caras Park in Missoula to tout the benefits of a potential $579 billion federal infrastructure plan.

Hess pointed at Beartracks Bridge, which is under construction to widen the pedestrian and bicycle paths on either side.

“I can’t express enough how important that infrastructure is for my constituents and federal investment is critical,” Hess said. “This bridge is not getting built with local money. We are primarily dependent on property taxes at the local level and we can’t do these transformative projects without the help of the federal government.”

Tester, a Democrat representing Montana, said that it’s been a long time since America has made a significant investment in its infrastructure.

“We’ve been living on our parents’ and grandparents’ infrastructure for far too long,” he said.

Starting about a month ago, Tester recalled, five Democrats and five Republicans in the U.S. Senate got together and negotiated an infrastructure bill. In late June, President Joe Biden endorsed the plan, saying it would create millions of jobs. The final language of the bill could be released soon and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could bring the bill to the floor later this month.

“This is truly a once-in-a-century investment in infrastructure in this country,” Tester said. “It will be one of the most impactful non-emergency bills, once it’s passed, in this nation’s history. And as I said before, it’s urgently needed. It will provide significant investment in Montana’s roads, bridges, airports and water infrastructure.”

The bill would improve broadband connectivity and create good-paying jobs in both rural and urban parts of the state, Tester said. It would create new spending on top of existing baseline infrastructure allocations.

Details are still scarce, but Tester said it would be funded in part by stricter enforcement of tax collections on the ultra-wealthy and a host of other revenue-increasing provisions.

“It will allow us to maintain our competitive edge over China in the 21st century and that is our major threat in the world right now,” Tester said. “And it’s going to do it, by the way, without burdening any Montanans with any new taxes, including a gas tax, which I might add the president fought very hard to not have that.”

The plan would include money for new charging stations for electric cars, Tester said. The infrastructure bill wouldn’t include any funding for housing, so Congress will have to address housing through a separate reconciliation bill, he added.

Deb Poteet, the owner of Poteet Construction in Missoula, said her company is often involved in large public works projects and employs people in dozens of locations in Montana.

“In all of these locations, we buy groceries,” she said. “We support the local economy. This bill is needed to keep Americans and Montanans moving safely throughout the United States and throughout Montana. The funding in this package is a good investment in the roads, bridges and airports as I’ve said, but also an important factor are the high wages that this pays.”

Brian Ellestad, the acting director of the Missoula International Airport, said federal funding has been critical to the construction of a new $110 million airport terminal expansion.

The project has created hundreds of high-paying jobs in the area, he said.

“We’ve secured funding for the first phase and we’re in final design of the second phase,” Ellestad said. “This could help propel us to kind of keep everybody rolling.”

A spokesperson for Republican Sen. Steve Daines sent the Missoulian a statement regarding his stance on the proposed infrastructure plan.

“The Senator has strong concerns with the cost and how this will be paid for, especially as Montana families grapple with soaring inflation,” the statement read. “The Senator is also concerned by (Nancy) Pelosi’s demands to pass trillions in social welfare spending before even considering passing a traditional infrastructure bill.”