Billings Gazette: Big infrastructure bill promises billions to Montana projects

by Tom Lutey

To understand how impactful a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill is, all one needs to know is that the legislation is stirring discussions about a return of Amtrak passenger rail service across the southern part of Montana.

The southern route once connected communities like Fargo, Bismarck, Billings, Bozeman and Missoula as it passed between Chicago and Seattle. Known as the North Coast Hiawatha, it is a streamlined vessel submerged under 42 years of government actions unsupportive of long-distance rail in the West. It is a Titanic, if you will, complete with groups determined to bring it to the surface.

The infrastructure bill makes no promises of a southern route, but raises the possibility like nothing else has for at least a decade. A vote for passage of the bill is expected within days.

“What this does is direct the Secretary of Transportation to conduct a nationwide study of restoring long-distance passenger rail routes. And that includes $15 million for that study, a foundational piece. It’s a big deal,” said David Strohmaier, Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority chairman.

“The other piece, and we’ve emphasized all along that we have no desire to simply conduct another study that’s going to sit on a shelf, is in the infrastructure package,” he said. “There’s $12 billion for enhancement of intercity passenger rail. Intercity is a broader category that includes both corridors between urban areas and also long-distance routes. And so of the $12 billion for intercity passenger rail enhancements, 20% of that must be used for long distance routes. That’s the important piece. It’s not a maximum, but a minimum.”

Strohmaier is also chair of the Missoula County Commission. Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is stocked with county commissioners from Wibaux in the southeast to Sanders County in the northwest, all of whom see passenger rail as a viable way of traveling to the state’s urban areas, as well as moving people southeast to northwest, something no air service has done in the last 15 years.

There are several sections in the 2,702-page infrastructure bill that, like reconsideration of a southern route, suggest opportunities for Montana.

There’s more than $8 billion for clean hydrogen development, the kind for which Montana’s Republican-led Legislature earlier this year cobbled together a tax break and shushed environmental standards. Busy highway grade rail-crossings, like the one that regularly clogs 27th Street traffic in Billings, are targeted with $3 billion. There is $73 billion dedicated to the electric power industry, including $2.5 billion for carbon capture projects, including for power plants, like Colstrip, and clean energy projects for coal communities where miners and power plant workers have been dislocated. There is research funding for recovering critical minerals from mine waste.

The talking points promoting the bill have focused more on traditional infrastructure. The White House on Wednesday estimated that $2.8 billion in federal aid would flow to federal highways in Montana, emphasizing that 377 bridges and 1,485 miles of the state’s highways are in poor condition. Public transportation in the state is expected to receive a $164 million shot in the arm. There’s roughly $43 million for electric vehicle charging stations in Montana, something cities like Billings have been funding through air pollution settlement dollars from Volkswagen. There is also $100 million to provide broadband internet access to Montanans who currently lack service. In addition to those appropriations, there are billions of dollars for which Montana can compete.

“The bottom line is that our infrastructure nationally is crumbling,” said David Smith of the Montana Contractors Association. “We have not kept up with the heavy increase in the usage. I think we rank like 13th in vehicle miles traveled by a tractor trailer. Most of the bridges have been repaired or fixed, but where you really find a lot of trouble is on the secondary roads off of the interstates.”

The support for the infrastructure bill is lukewarm among Senate Republicans. The bill will require at least 10 votes from Republican Senators and unanimous backing by Democrats to pass. Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the state’s only statewide elected Democrat, was among 11 lawmakers who brokered the infrastructure bill compromise that woos GOP support. Republican Sen. Steve Daines is on the fence.

“We have reached out to Senator Daines’ office, because we are curious as to why he has not been out in front of this right to date,” Smith said. “Now, we think that he probably will come on board at some point, but considering that his father was a contractor, contractors have been very supportive of him. In the past, it’s been a good relationship. We just want to know what he’s seeing in the bill that’s concerning.”

The last time Congress approved infrastructure spending this broad was in 2009 when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed the Senate, but with only support from three Republicans. In that round of pothole politics, there weren’t consequences for lawmakers opposed. The following year, Republicans won control of the House in the 2010 general election.

When it comes to the infrastructure bill, Daines has been doing a very cautious two-step. Recently he joined two other Republicans in voting with Democrats on the Senate Energy Committee to support the Energy Infrastructure Act. That bill is best understood as the mainframe for the energy projects in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, as prescribed by the negotiators of the big bill. It included $300 million for Montana water projects, also the base language for clean hydrogen investments and U.S. development of resources for critical minerals.

Daines’ Energy Committee vote also established logging and tree thinning to lower wildfire risks in national forests. Consequently, tree thinning is part of the infrastructure package. Also supported by Tester, there is $500 million in the bill for mechanical logging and tree thinning.

On July 30, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said during a wildfire briefing with President Joe Biden that tree thinning was needed. Biden concurred.

Thursday, Daines announced he won’t support the bill, citing a Congressional Budget office estimate that the spending will add $256 billion to the deficit over 10 years.

There was push back on the CBO score. Tester’s staff noted that $269 billion in “pay-fors” used to pay for the infrastructure bill weren’t counted by the CBO. For example, the bill repurposes $53 billion in unspent COVID unemployment benefits and $173.3 billion in unused COVID tax credits, neither of which were counted by CBO. There was also $43.45 billion in revenue in taxes related to cryptocurrencies and chemicals.

Among the provisions secured by Tester in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill is $2.5 billion to complete Indian water rights settlements, of which Montana has three. There’s $1 billion for completing rural water projects and the Milk River Irrigation Project, critical to more than 300 miles of Montana Hi-Line communities. The water projects were also supported by Daines in Senate Energy Committee.

The bill includes $3.39 billion for wildfire risk reduction and forest restoration. There is also $20 million for the Joint Fire Science program, of which the University of Montana Fire Laboratory benefits.

In addition to the $2.5 billion for carbon capture projects, Tester points out there’s another $937 million for the large-scale carbon capture pilot program and $2.7 billion in flexible loans for “carbon transportation infrastructure.” One of the goals of capturing carbon pollution at the coal-fired Colstrip Power Plant in southeast Montana is piping the pollution to oil wells for to improve oil recovery.

The owners of the power plant have made no indication they would pursue carbon capture technology for Colstrip. Four utilities with a combined 70% ownership stake in the power plant favor closing it by late 2025.