MDT Awaits First Bids for Stimulus Work

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Montana’s $200 million-plus in federal stimulus money for highway work isn’t out of the chute yet, but it’s already buoying the outlook of businessmen such as Kyle and Jason Fisher, brothers who form straw into tubes for erosion control at highway construction sites.

The state Transportation Department’s first project that would tap the stimulus money covers one phase of thoroughfare improvement work in Billings, and carries an estimated price of $12 million. The department expects bids Thursday for that project, one of several dozen to be funded with Montana’s $211 million or more in stimulus dollars aimed at job creation through highway and bridge work.

The lineup has the Fishers anticipating increased sales of wattles produced by their business, Prairie Management, in the northern Montana town of Chinook.

Not the fleshy lobes on chickens, these wattles are 10- to 25-foot straw tubes held together with netting that breaks down in sunlight. Staked in the ground, they slow the flow of water on slopes not yet permanently landscaped for erosion control.

It’s not just major construction contractors who stand to benefit from stimulus spending by the Transportation Department, said Jim Lynch, the agency’s director. Highway work draws on myriad suppliers, some of them small.

“I think that’s what the federal government envisioned when they looked at stimulus” and the nation’s infrastructure, Lynch said. “A lot of suppliers.”

The Transportation Department estimates 6,500 jobs will be generated through its projects funded by the $211 million in stimulus money, an allocation that could rise if another state doesn’t satisfy requirements and its dollars get redistributed.

Transportation spending is the largest single portion of Montana’s $800 million in stimulus money and comes atop $300 million in the department’s regular construction program for 2009. Half of the transportation stimulus must be obligated by mid-June. Although bids have been sought, the Transportation Department won’t sign contracts until it has spending authorization from the Legislature, authorization in a bill that is advancing and likely will reach Gov. Brian Schweitzer for his signature next month.

Lynch said Wednesday that turnaround times for administrative work on some of the stimulus projects may be lowered as the agency considers deadlines and the projects’ scope. That happens outside of the stimulus framework, as well, he said. Depending on the job, the span between advertising for bids and submitting them may be 45-60 days, or it could be trimmed to 30, he said. He also said bidding frequency is being stepped up to twice a month, from once monthly.

Well before the stimulus package was announced, Montana had an array of highway projects that passed environmental muster and were ready to go in other respects, as money became available, Lynch said earlier this month at a meeting of the Montana Transportation Commission.

As for wattles, state transportation projects used about 7 1/2 miles of them in the last highway construction season. A variety of suppliers sell them.

The Fishers got into the business three years ago and have focused sales efforts in Wyoming, where oil pipeline work boosted demand for wattles, as well as in Montana. Encouraged partly by the stimulus cash, they hope to add customers in Idaho and the Dakotas this construction season. Collectively the five states are targeted for $900 million in stimulus money for road, highway and bridge work.

“The more business we get, the more people we can employ,” Jason Fisher said. Ordinarily, the brothers have seven employees for nine or 10 months of the year.

The Fishers, both in their 20s, started Prairie Management after Jason had a job hauling wattles. “I saw all that money (in sales) going out of state,” he said.

Using skills acquired during their farm upbringing, the brothers built a machine that makes weed-free straw into wattles 9, 12 and 16 inches in diameter. The smallest retails for $1 a foot.

Financially, they find the business similar to farming.

“You have good times and bad times,” Jason said. “We’ve done OK. We’re not flying around on a Lear jet.”

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