Our Road to Somewhere

By Beacon Staff

No one can put a timetable on when the U.S. Highway 93 bypass will be completed. It’s said that it will be built in phases: a slab of concrete here, another there. The dead ends will then be connected to form an eventual road when enough money is panhandled by our Washington delegation. Mitch Stelling, of Stelling Engineers, in a recent meeting said until then, “it may seem like roads to nowhere.”

In 2005, a federally funded project in Alaska was dubbed “the bridge to nowhere” and brought the issue of earmarks to the political forefront. It would have connected the Alaskan mainland to an island populated by about 50 people and cost $230 million – pocket change for the federal government. The 93 bypass, in contrast, will benefit thousands of Flathead Valley residents and the thousands more who visit. Here’s to hoping the bridge to nowhere doesn’t affect the (temporary) roads to nowhere.

Drumming up the funds to pay for our long-awaited bypass may be more difficult than it once was. Federal pork projects, or earmarks, are now frowned upon by the public and pundits alike. The millions slipped into transportation bills come under greater scrutiny. Gone are the days of perennial porker Congressman Don Young, R-Alaska, bragging that a transportation bill was “stuffed like a turkey” with earmarks for his home state.

That bragging, in part, may have cost his state two bridges: the aforementioned nowhere bridge and another to somewhere else, aptly named “Don Young’s Way.” Young, Alaska’s lone congressman and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, along with his fellow Alaskan senators were pumping so many projects up north that the state received $6.60 for every dollar its residents paid in federal gas tax – the most by far out of any state.

Montana ranks fifth on that list, due in large part to former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who was senior member of the Appropriations Subcommittee and unapologetically funneled millions to the state, including $8 million for the 93 bypass.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester beat Burns, calling for earmark reform and riding a wave of sentiment demanding greater government transparency. It’s admirable that Tester wants his delegation to know where federal money flows, but, right now, we need some pork like a lumberjack having a late lunch at a barbecue joint. We need it bad and we don’t care if everyone knows about it.

The longer the bypass takes to complete, the longer our Main Street is choked with traffic, and the longer our downtown businesses suffer because of it. Kalispell, compared to other cities in the state that are home to universities and military bases, doesn’t ask for much.

Stelling estimated that the bypass project could cost $75.3 million, of which we have about $9 million. Nonetheless, Montana Department of Transportation Director Jim Lynch said the progress so far “puts the community in as good a position as anywhere in the country to take advantage of available federal funds.”

Sens. Max Baucus and Tester, Congressman Denny Rehberg, this is a plea for more pork, a request to slip a measly $66 million into one of the multi-billion dollar bills you pass each year. I know “earmark” is now a four-letter word in an era of alleged congressional accountability.

But U.S. Congress’s approval rating hovers at record lows. So, maybe, pork in moderation – like anything – isn’t all that bad. Show us the money. This isn’t a bridge to nowhere. It’s a road upon which much of our future growth depends.

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