News & Features

Civil Engineers: Build Montana Act Sets ‘Foundation’

Critics say House Bill 5 is too big and fraught with frivolous spending

Democrats and some Republicans are teaming up to push a nearly $400 million infrastructure bill they say will put millions of dollars into the state’s economy and support thousands of jobs. But civil engineers say that House Bill 5, dubbed the Build Montana Act, will only set the “foundation” to repair the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

In November 2014, the Montana Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state a “mediocre” C-minus in its infrastructure report card that looks at the condition of schools, roads, dams, transit systems and water and wastewater treatment systems.

“Will the (Build Montana Act) bring the state from a C-minus to a solid B? Probably not, but it shows that we’re heading in the right direction,” said Melissa Matassa-Stone, chairwoman of the committee that authored the report card.

According to Dan Villa, budget director for Gov. Steve Bullock, the Build Montana Act would spend $380 million to fund 280 different projects across the state. Projects in Northwest Montana include more than $1 million to improve the heating and air conditioning systems in Libby’s schools; nearly $900,000 for wastewater system improvements in Polson; $500,000 for Whitefish’s wastewater system; and almost $300,000 for energy efficiency upgrades at Troy High School.

Some of the biggest checks will be going to counties in eastern Montana that are dealing with the impacts of the Bakken oil boom. Villa said that $45 million would be spent there to improve roads, bridges, water and wastewater systems and fund new cop cars and fire trucks.

Villa said that last year city and county governments from across the state all submitted grant applications for priority projects and every one that met certain criteria was approved.

“This bill includes infrastructure development that will help all communities in Montana, urban ones and rural ones, from east to west,” Villa said.

Dillon Republican Rep. Jeff Welborn introduced the bill in the Legislature and said it is currently in committee. He said that sound infrastructure is something that both Republicans and Democrats can get behind.

But not all Republicans think the big infrastructure bill is a good idea and question if it will pass. Republican Sen. Cary Smith of Billings, who serves as a majority whip, accused the governor of filling it with frivolous “pork” projects.

“The biggest problem with proposing a massive, omnibus infrastructure bill like the Governor has done, is that it puts the state’s entire infrastructure funding at risk,” Smith wrote in a recent editorial. “Legislators must decide on an all-or-nothing basis, forcing them to vote for political ‘pork’ in order to fund much-needed projects around the state.”

Smith suggests reverting back to the old way of issuing infrastructure grants by proposing several smaller bills so that each proposal can “stand on their own merits rather than having their fate tied to unrelated projects.”

While $380 million may seem like a huge amount of money, William Warren Wiegand, president of the Montana chapter of the ASCE, said that it would only cover a small portion of the infrastructure improvements the state needs in the future.

Both Wiegand and Matassa-Stone said that it would take multiple spending bills over a number of years to help rebuild Montana’s infrastructure. However, while Montana’s roads and bridges are in need of work, they’re in better shape than others in the nation. In 2014 Montana got a C-minus from the ASCE, while the rest of the country got a D-plus in 2013.

“The Build Montana Act creates a foundation to fix Montana’s infrastructure but it does not address all of the state’s needs,” Wiegand said.

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