Building Season

By Kellyn Brown

It’s construction season in Montana and, while at times maddening, it’s at once a welcome sight. As the nation’s infrastructure continues to crumble, our state is spending $372 million building and repairing roads and bridges through the fall – a hefty and much-needed sum.

With the collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge crossing the Skagit River in Washington state, attention has again turned to the country’s increasingly dilapidated transportation system. In that case, a truck carrying an oversize load struck the bridge and a portion of it collapsed. Two vehicles fell into the waters below. No one was seriously injured.

The bridge, built in 1955, had been listed by the Federal Highway Administration as “functionally obsolete,” but, as an Associated Press analysis found, it’s sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100 is better than more than 700 other bridges in that state. In other words, a lot more bridges are considered a lot more dangerous.

Percentage-wise, Montana has more “structurally deficient” bridges than Washington, 7.8 percent compared to 4.7 percent, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Of these 399 deficient bridges in this state, 12 are in Flathead County. By no means does that suggest any of them are about to fall down. But it does mean they need repairs along with hundreds of miles of roads in Montana.

It’s a credit to our Republican-led Legislature and Democratic governor that they largely spared state and federal construction spending from political bickering. In an interview with Lee Newspapers’ Charles Johnson, Mike Tooley, director of the Montana Department of Transportation, said, “The Legislature treated us pretty well. They realize the importance of transportation infrastructure investment. Transportation is an easy sell.”

I’m not advocating writing MDT a blank check, but the majority of money spent over the next several weeks are federal dollars and Tooley estimated the work would generate upwards of 12,000 much-needed jobs.

Recently, the highway snaking up Bad Rock Canyon toward Glacier National Park has been the subject of a Montana Department of Transportation study, and the agency has recommended rebuilding the stretch of road over the next 20 years. MDT also recommends replacing the South Fork Flathead River Bridge, which is both “functionally obsolete” and “structurally deficient,” in the next 10 years.

“It’s a critical issue that needs to be addressed,” said Dee Brown, a Republican lawmaker and longtime resident of the canyon, in an interview last year. “It was designed for traffic (levels) of decades ago … When it was all horse and buggies it was sufficient, but not in the 21st century.”

The same could be said for hundreds of roads and bridges across the country. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that 32 percent of the major roads in the United States are in poor or mediocre condition and 66,749 bridges, or 11 percent, of its bridges are structurally deficient.

Congress – yes, the same divided Congress most of us have deemed relatively worthless – is beginning to look at possible solutions, including a bill, “The Partnership to Build America Act,” proposed by Maryland Democratic Congressman John Delaney.

The legislation, according to the Baltimore Sun, would “allow U.S. companies to repatriate a portion of their overseas cash, tax free, if those companies invest in a new bond program that would be used to pay for highways, energy projects, school buildings and other infrastructure.” So far, 13 Republicans and 13 Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors.

It’s a complex bill that doesn’t cost taxpayers a thing and that Delaney says could finance up to $750 billion worth of infrastructure projects.

Critics contend the legislation would simply reward corporations that already game the tax system. Perhaps they’re right, but at least we’re having a serious conversation about the need to rebuild our vast transportation network.

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