Billings Gazette: Infrastructure bill would be economic windfall for Montana, Billings officials say

by Tom Lutey

If an energy drink can give you wings, just think of what $19 million might do. It sent a jolt though Billings Airport Director Kevin Ploehn on Tuesday.

“Yahoo!” Ploehn shouted, standing in the center of a $60 million remodel of Billings Logan International Airport.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester was by his side. The senator had just explained that future federal spending at Montana airports, part of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan approved by the Senate this month, was set to increase $144 million over the next five to eight years, with $19 million being spent in Billings.

“Every year, the airports of this state do a five-year (capital improvement plan) for the FAA. And that five-year CIP tends to go six, seven and eight (years) with projects that you never can get in,” Ploehn said. “If we can get this infrastructure bill across the finish line, we will be able to take some of those projects that have been sitting out there for a while and get them up there because they are worthy projects.”

Every large city in Montana is expanding its airport to deal with growth, Ploehn said. In Yellowstone County, which added 16,700 residents during the last decade, concourse and runway improvements are desperately needed.

“Missoula is in the middle of a construction project as well. Great Falls just finished a small project. Glacier is just starting a large one. All these are important projects, because people are coming to Montana and most of them are coming on airplanes,” Ploehn said.

The Billings airport was Tester’s first Montana stop since the infrastructure bill’s Senate passage. The U.S. House has yet to take up the bill. The Democratic senator said he intended to apply some pressure to assure passage of the bill, which he and a bipartisan group of nine other lawmakers brokered with the Biden Administration.

So far, Tester is the only member of the Montana delegation to get behind an infrastructure package that’s at least the largest of its kind in 11 years, if not ever. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines wasn’t among the 19 Republicans who joined Democrats in passing the bill. It remains to be seen if Montana’s at-large representative, Republican Matt Rosendale, will support the legislation in the House.

The White House estimates that $2.8 billion in road construction will flow to Montana because of the bill. Tester has put the Montana investment at closer to $5 billion once dedicated funding for water projects and broadband are combined with projects funds for which Montana will have to compete with other states.

In Billings, home to the state’s largest population of Republican voters, there was relief that after months of negotiations a bipartisan bill was passed.

“We’re literally set to have billions of dollars in desperately needed new projects. At a time when our state needs a real shot in the arm because of the rascally pandemic,” said Jeremy Vannatta, of the Billings Chamber of Commerce.

“This type of bipartisan leadership you demonstrated, Sen. Tester, in working to be an author of this major infrastructure bill. And truly working across the aisle is exactly what I believe an overwhelming majority of Montanans want,” Vanatta said. “We are tired of divisive politics. We are tired of name calling and blame games, and we’re ready for our elected officials to lead us as they were hired to do. You and many other senators from both sides of the aisle did just that in this infrastructure bill.”

The City of Billings has $6 billion of infrastructure to take care of, said Debi Mehling, the city’s public works director.

“Acknowledging that our citizens pay for water, sewer, storm drain, road, all of the infrastructure, it’s a substantial part of their monthly expenses.” Mehling said. “So anytime there’s an infrastructure bill like this, or help from the federal government, or the state level, it’s a direct impact to our citizens.”

Tester said the water projects in the infrastructure bill in particular were going to be important for Montana’s future. There was $300 million in the bill to complete three large drinking water projects serving several hundred miles of Hi-Line communities, including three American Indian reservations.

“The investment we’ve made in water in this bill is really important because I think, as time moves forward in this 21st century, I think you’re gonna see economic development gravitate towards water,” Tester said. “We’ve got billions of dollars nationally to expand high-speed internet to every corner of a state like Montana. So, it impacts rural America and urban America, so that families can access telehealth services, distance learning, and quite frankly, be able to work and access a huge customer base, with billions of dollars to help communities landscape and prepare for wildfires before they happen. And quite frankly, the good part about this is, it’s paid for not by raising taxes.”

There’s about $550 billion in new spending in the bill. The rest comes from a combination of funds recovered from spending bills that weren’t fully drawn down.

“Nothing better than a good yahoo,” Tester said.