Depleted Highway Trust Fund Could Have Big Impacts on Montana’s Roads

Transportation secretary says fund could run dry in early August

By Justin Franz

 The federal fund that maintains America’s roads is running precariously low, and local, state and federal officials say if it runs dry later this summer there will be severe consequences for roads in Montana and across the nation.

On July 1, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that the Highway Trust Fund is running low and if politicians in Washington D.C. don’t do anything about it soon the federal agency will have to curtail payments to states. The Mass Transit Account, which supports public transit systems, including Flathead County’s Eagle Transit, is expected to hit the same levels in October as well.

“There is still time for Congress to act on a long-term solution,” Foxx wrote in a letter to state transportation departments earlier this month. “Our transportation infrastructure is too essential to suffer continued neglect, and I hope Congress will avert this crisis before it is too late.”

The Highway Trust Fund is funded primarily through the gas and diesel fuel tax, which has not been increased in more than two decades, despite rising construction costs and more fuel-efficient vehicles. Montana receives about 1.04 percent of the annual gas tax, or about $400 million every year, according to Lynn Zanto, administrator for the Transportation Planning Division of the Montana Department of Transportation.

 Zanto said if the fund were to be depleted, the U.S. Department of Transportation would have to reduce federal reimbursements to states beginning next month. While road construction projects this summer would not be impacted, those slated for next year could be, including the Kalispell Bypass and U.S. Highway 93 project west of Whitefish. Zanto said typically MDT has 400 projects going on at once, either in the planning, design or construction stages. Some of those projects would be delayed if federal highway money was not available.

A lack of highway funds would also have a major impact on the state’s economy, according to Zanto, who said federally funded road projects support more than 11,000 jobs in the state. For now, Zanto said MDT is preparing for next year as if the funds were going to be available – “it’s a lot easier to ramp back a project than to ramp up on short notice,” she said – in hopes that Congress comes up with a solution.

Inaction in Washington, D.C. could also impact local public transit systems, such as Flathead County’s Eagle Transit. In October, the Mass Transit Account is forecasted to run out of money as well. According to Lisa Sheppard, director of the Agency on Aging, which runs Eagle Transit, federal money makes up more than half of the bus service’s annual $1.2 million budget. Without the approximately $600,000 from the federal government, Eagle Transit would have to shut down.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said it is unlikely that a long-term solution, such as a new Highway Bill, will be passed before the November election. However, he believes that a short-term fix to fund the Highway Trust Fund will come through in the coming weeks. Last week, House Republicans proposed moving $10.7 billion to the highway fund to maintain it through May 2015. Tester said he would support a move like that, but questioned where the money would come from. He said a new highway bill that preserves the Highway Trust Fund for years to come is critical.

“If we’re jumping from catastrophe to catastrophe here and we don’t have a long-term solution then it hurts Montana because we’re a big state with few people and we need a good transportation system,” he said. “If we don’t act and if we don’t get a long term highway bill then this problem will not go away.”

The last time a highway bill was passed was in 2012.

While Tester said raising the gas tax is one possible solution, Congressman Steve Daines said he would not support such an increase. Alee Lockman, a spokesperson for Daines, said the congressman believes there are other ways to support the trust fund, including using royalties from natural resource development on federal lands.

While Tester and Daines disagree on the means to support the trust fund, both say it is critical to Montana’s future.

“We need a 21st Century transportation system, be it roads, rails, you name it,” Tester said. “Because if we don’t have it, soon it will be very hard for us to catch up with the rest of the world.”