Montana Officials Keeping Close Eye on Transportation Bills

By Beacon Staff

Officials at the Montana Department of Transportation are keeping a close eye on the development of two separate transportation bills that could significantly affect federal funding for the state’s highways.

Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are simultaneously trying to finalize separate measures that would determine funding levels for the country’s transportation infrastructure. Both chambers are on a 10-day recess and are scheduled to resume work this week.

In its current form, the House measure would have the most impact on Montana, reducing the state’s share of federal transportation funding from roughly 1 percent to .85 percent. That would lead to an estimated $68 million in cuts from the current allowance, according to the state’s transportation department. The state’s current highway budget is roughly $390 million a year. The funding would drop to $322 million under the House measure.

“Highway construction is one of the economic generators in the state, so it means jobs. I think it’s definitely important that we try to maintain our federal funding,” said Lynn Zanto, the planning administrator for MDT. “We’re reliant on federal funds for maintaining and improving our (highway) system.”

The House measure, which would extend for five years, has come under fire as some Republicans have joined Democrats in expressing opposition to several proposed cuts in funding levels across the country. Reports have emerged that House lawmakers may be willing to compromise in order to improve the bill’s chance of passing.

“It’s hard to tell right now (what will happen),” Zanto said. “It has been encouraging that there were considerable efforts made in the last week in both chambers.”

The Senate bill would extend the current funding levels established in the 2005 Highway Bill for two years. Montana Sen. Max Baucus, the chairman on the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure, is expected to deliver a floor speech on the highway bill next week.

Baucus is co-sponsoring the bill, which has received bipartisan support up to now. Baucus wrote the 2005 bill that brought more than $2.3 billion to the state for highway construction projects and helped create and sustain more than 18,000 jobs, according to the senator’s office.

“Highways are our lifeblood in Montana,” Baucus said. “We spend a lot of time behind the wheel and we know that investing in our transportation infrastructure means good-paying jobs in the short term and for the long haul. I’m going to keep working hard to pass this bill because we all rely on strong roads and safe transportation for jobs and to raise our families.”

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