Billings Gazette: U.S. Dept. of Transportation announces $225 million for Montana bridges

by Tom Lutey

The U.S. Department of Transportation will spend $225 million repairing Montana bridges over the next five years, the agency recently announced.

Calling the appropriation a “once-in-a-generation investment,” the U.S. DOT said there was money to repair 365 Montana bridges in poor condition and improve 3,300 bridges in fair condition.

Montana isn’t short on bridges needing repair, particularly bridges that are “off system,” meaning maintained by cities or counties or local agencies, for which U.S. DOT will cover all repair costs.

“We’ve got over 2,000 of them that are maintained by locals and there’s about 179 of those that are in poor condition, and 560 are load-restricted and 539 of them were constructed prior to 1952. They’re 70 years old,” said Dustin Rouse, Montana DOT acting chief engineer.

The number of vehicles and the weight of truck loads has increased dramatically over the decades. A decade ago, Eastern Montana bridges were groaning under the weight of the heavy trucks traveling backroads to reach Bakken oil drilling rigs. It was traffic that local governments never expected when calculating the life of aging infrastructure in sparsely populated areas.

In western Montana, a population boom is taking its toll on roads and bridges as well, Rouse said.

Local governments will be able to apply for grants to cover bridge costs. The state expects to cover about 14% of the repair costs for the bridges it maintains. Rouse said the state will “bundle” projects, grouping several bridges together to improve longer stretches of roadway and making them structurally similar to keep contractors moving.

The funding is channeled through the Bridge Replacement, Rehabilitation, Preservation, Protection, and Construction Program, which has been around for a few years but has seen significant increases in federal funding over the past two years.

Back in fiscal year 2020, the Bridge Program sent $25 million to Montana, then in 2021 it increased to $34 million. This 2022 appropriation is $45 million.

U.S. DOT credited the 2022 funding to the bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Also Friday, the Bureau of Reclamation designated $2.5 million for planning and design of repairs to the Milk River Project, which is budgeted for up to $100 million in repairs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in the fall. The investment was announced by Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester.

Tester helped negotiate the bipartisan bill and was the only Montana lawmaker to vote for the legislation.