Max Baucus woke up early one morning last week, got dressed and went to work. But unlike most days, he wasn’t walking the halls of Congress and running the Senate Finance Committee. Instead, Baucus, 67, showed up alongside the crew from Knife River and Sletten Construction to work on the Stillwater North portion of the U.S. Highway 93 expansion north of Kalispell.
And while legislating and roadwork share a common trait in that both cause the outsider to scratch their head and wonder why each takes so long to get done, the similarities mostly end there. That’s why for 16 years Baucus, a Democrat and Montana’s senior senator, has been taking these “work days” to spend some time outside of Washington D.C. and, as Baucus said, “get to know people doing real work.”
On this particular morning he operated a rock truck moving tons of soil from one end of the site to the other – and driving fast enough to make his staffers present slightly nervous. The truck has a large joint separating the cab and engine from the flatbed, which makes tight turns going forward simple but driving in reverse more complicated.
When asked what was the toughest part of the job, Baucus replied simply: “Backing up.”
“If you look through the mirrors you can get it lined up,” he added.
While Baucus has worked at everything from chip sealing to helping out at a pharmacy, he said one of his toughest days was the shift spent “stoking those potlines” at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company.
“I was stiff for a week,” Baucus said.
But this most recent work day allowed him a closer look at improvements to U.S. 93, one of the most heavily used, yet dangerous, roadways in the state. Baucus has secured roughly $67 million for U.S. 93 over the last six years – including $11 million for the Kalispell bypass – and said there are more appropriations on the way as part of the recently passed “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” or stimulus jobs bill, Congress recently passed.
“We’ve got about $212 million in the stimulus jobs bill for Montana highways – that’s a good chunk,” Baucus said. “And of course 93 always needs work, whether it’s the bypass or 93 itself, so it’s good to see what some of the work is.”
As for whether those stimulus dollars devoted to highway construction will effectively stimulate Montana’s economy, Baucus believes it will.
“It’s working if we’re getting highways built,” Baucus said. “We’re a highway state; it’s our lifeblood, and if we’re getting highways built and highways improved that’s a sure sign of progress.”
Allocating federal stimulus toward projects like road improvements in some ways pays for itself, he explained, in that providing capital for infrastructure projects ends up generating work and demand in several sectors of the economy. And in areas like the Flathead, road maintenance indirectly facilitates continued tourism.
“Highway construction stimulates much more than, say, spending a dollar on consumption because there’s a stimulative effect,” Baucus said. “You spend a dollar on a highway project, it goes to help buy the equipment, the fuel, the asphalt – it has a multiplier effect of about five.”
Echoing views expressed recently by Obama administration officials, Baucus said he did not foresee another round of stimulus legislation by Congress in the foreseeable future, but that largely depends on how unemployment levels trend through the end of the year.
“If national unemployment levels drop precipitously, obviously, that’s an argument for another round of stimulus,” he said. “On the other hand, if unemployment levels seem to be leveling off, it’s doubtful there would be another bill because deficit spending is getting pretty high so far.”
Baucus added that deficit spending, while high, is acceptable during a recession, but that, “it’s not OK when things start to get better.”
With that, Baucus was handed a shovel and pair of work gloves and informed by a member of the Sletten Construction crew that it was, in fact, time to get back to work – a task he appeared to enjoy more than speaking with the media.
“I don’t want to stand around; I want to work,” Baucus said.
He made his way down a slope to the where a crew beneath the overpass just south of Majestic Valley Arena was working with shovels to clear dirt out from where the slope met the bridge. Overhead, the drivers in their vehicles zoomed by, unaware a U.S. senator toiled beneath them, slinging mud and trying to avoid getting tagged by the excavator.
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