Before meeting with local business and community leaders this week to discuss job growth and transportation concerns in the Flathead Valley, Max Baucus went jogging along the southern section of the Kalispell bypass.
The 70-year-old Montana senator helped secure millions of dollars in federal appropriations for the U.S. Highway 93 Alternate Route. But as he found out firsthand during his recent visit, the new stretch of highway is currently, as Mayor Tammi Fisher describes it, a “road to nowhere.”
“The bypass is critical for us, but it really isn’t a bypass until the north half is done,” Fisher told Baucus at a roundtable gathering inside the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce on May 3.
The halfway-completed bypass and the uncertainty of the project’s future embody a topic of concern at the front of the senator’s mind these days. Baucus is one of the driving forces behind the federal highway bill, the main funding source for the nation’s transportation and infrastructure needs. The bill’s future is currently in limbo as the House of Representatives struggles to agree on a plan. The House approved a placeholder bill that allows for negotiations with the Senate and the two sides have until June 30, when the government’s authority to spend highway trust fund money expires and another short-term extension will be necessary.
On his recent “Jobs Tour” to the Flathead, Baucus emphasized the importance of funding long-term infrastructure, using Montana as a prime example.
“We depend on our highways, I think more than people in any other state,” Baucus said.
Montana has more highway miles per person than anywhere else in the U.S., the senator says, and Highway 93, including the stretch winding north through the heart of the Flathead, is the busiest non-interstate highway in the state.
In order for the state, and specifically Northwest Montana, to tap into the “huge opportunities and potential” that exist and recover from a significant economic downturn, developing quality infrastructure through roads is paramount, he said.
The two-year, $109 billion federal highway bill approved by the Senate last month would create or sustain 14,000 jobs in the state, Baucus said.
As the fifth longest serving U.S. senator and chairman of the finance committee, Baucus gathered bipartisan support and steered the Senate’s approval of a highway bill that maintained national funding for transportation and infrastructure needs as well as two programs vital to Montana, the Secure Rural Schools Act and Payments in Lieu of Taxes.
The fate of the highway bill could hinge on the approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which is the most political aspect of the highway bill, Baucus said.
All three of Montana’s lawmakers support the oil pipeline. On Friday, Baucus again called for the White House to quickly approve the pipeline permit after TransCanada submitted a new application to the U.S. State Department.
“Montana jobs have waited too long already, it’s time to move forward,” he said. “We’ve had more than three years of analysis and worked hard on strict property protections and environmental considerations. There is no excuse for further delay.”
Baucus appeared at the groundbreaking of the Flathead County Rail Park on Whitefish Stage Road, an event he helped make possible with $1.147 million in federal funds secured in 2010.
In a city like Kalispell, which lacks interstate access, railroad service is an important economic asset, he said. That is why the Flathead County Economic Development Authority bought the former gravel pit with the idea of building a 40-acre industrial railroad hub.
For his first stop, Baucus met with business and community leaders at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce and asked for suggestions for improving the region’s economy and lowering high unemployment rates.
Chamber President Joe Unterreiner asked Baucus to consider pushing for even more changes to cross-border spending regulations for Canadians as a way to spur more tourism. The Canadian government recently loosened tax limits and visitors to the U.S. will be able to bring home more purchases without paying taxes at the border starting in June.
Baucus supported Unterreiner’s suggestion and said he’s focusing on expanding Canadian tourism. The senator announced a tourism trade mission to Canada that will kick off in the fall and continue to build relationships and business contacts that were forged in a 2011 visit. Tourism accounted for almost $300 million in revenue to the Flathead economy and $2 billion statewide last year, according to the senator’s office.
But although there have been recent bright spots in the local economy, some shared their concern with Baucus over whether the national recession is truly in the rearview mirror.
“We’re really worried that nothing will happen between now and elections. Everyone will stay silent and we’ll just keep kicking the can down the road,” Robert Nystuen, president of Glacier Bank, told Baucus.
“I think it’s really stymieing our ability as a community and as country to move forward,” he added.
Baucus agreed with Nystuen’s assessment. He described the current climate in Congress as difficult because of partisanship and election-year politics stalling legislation. There is uncertainty in the national and local economies, but he said he remains hopeful that Congress will compromise and local economies, like the Flathead Valley’s, will adapt and thrive once again.
“There’s huge potential here,” he said after the roundtable gathering. “I really understand the timber industry does not have as many jobs as it once did. Life changes. You just got to go on. You have to look for new opportunities and new ways to make things work … You have to look for opportunities. They don’t usually come to you. And once you go looking around, you find them.”