Kalispell’s Garner to Sponsor Infrastructure Bill

Republican representative says he will propose spending efficiencies, fuel tax

By Tristan Scott
Rep. Frank Garner listens to discussion during a Montana Legislative Session in Helena. Beacon File Photo

As legislators begin unpacking Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposed $293 million infrastructure plan that includes cash and bonds, a local Republican lawmaker is sponsoring a public works bill that will raise the state’s fuel tax.

Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, said he is crafting an infrastructure bill this session based on recommendations from the Montana Infrastructure Coalition and born of his concern for public safety.

Garner is the former police chief in Kalispell, and now represents House District 7.

The bill, called the Bridge and Road Safety Accountability Act, will include a fuel tax increase, with the amount to be determined. Before looking at revenues, Garner said, he wants to seek out efficiencies in current transportation spending and ensure accountability by taking care that every new dollar the bill allocated for transportation is accounted for to legislators.

On Jan. 12, he said the bill was in the drafting stages and that he is working closely with fellow lawmakers and the Montana Infrastructure Coalition, a group that includes contractors, engineers, unions, and local governments.

Members of the coalition are charged with drafting a plan that goes beyond what Bullock has proposed, and have released a report detailing the state’s infrastructure needs. The report shows that deteriorated, congested and unsafe roads and bridges cost Montana drivers $794 million annually in higher vehicle operating costs, crashes and delays.

The report by TRIP, a nonprofit group that researches surface transportation issues, was released Jan. 12. The coalition has also proposed a 10-cent-per-gallon fuel tax increase to improve state and local roads and bridges.

The Montana Department of Transportation has estimated it will face an annual funding shortfall of $874 million through 2021, which could cause many needed projects to be stopped or delayed.

Garner said a fuel tax would generate new revenues, but efficiency and accountability would go a long way toward paring down spending.

“My main concern is public safety and that we have to do something about our infrastructure, and so to that end, I am going to work with the coalition and members of the Legislature with the mission of improving bridge and road safety,” he said. “The mission is not to raise the fuel tax by a certain percent, but we have to talk about additional revenues.”

“They sent me here to be more than a witness. They sent me here to be involved in government,” Garner added.

The governor, meanwhile, has called for an infrastructure plan that includes cash and bonds, and announced Jan. 12 that a $10 million short-term loan would be made to the Montana Department of Transportation, which would lead to nearly $140 million in federal funds for stalled roadway projects to get underway this fiscal year. The $10 million came from a Medicaid overpayment loaned to the Transportation Department to match federal money.

Debate on Bullock’s public works package began Jan. 13, with state officials, contractors, students and union representatives urging lawmakers to fund the projects despite Montana’s current budget crunch.

A legislative budget panel opened a hearing on a bond measure sponsored by Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, that is a major part of the governor’s package.

The bond bill would cover $157 million worth of projects, and the overall package would be paid for with a mix of cash and bonds.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Rep. Jim Keane as a Republican from Butte. He is a Democrat.