A Long-Term Solution to Funding Montana’s Infrastructure

We haven’t raised the gas tax in nearly a quarter century

By Frank Garner

I’ve spent three decades involved in improving public safety. The people that know me recognize it remains one of the great passions in my life. It’s that passion that has driven me in my life as a police officer, as a community volunteer and in my role in our Legislature.

It is why after seeing the information in the TRIP report I recognized we have to change the rate at which we are funding road and bridge work in this state. The TRIP report is an independent study commissioned by the Infrastructure Coalition that paints a grim picture of the state of our road and bridge infrastructure. Founded in 1971, TRIP is a private nonprofit organization that researches, evaluates and distributes economic and technical data on surface transportation issues.

To that end I’ve worked across the state and across the aisle to craft a long-term solution and that’s why I am proposing the Bridge and Road Safety and Accountability Act. The Act requires an audit of the Department of Transportation, a raise in the gas tax and a website to report all expenditures and projects.

According to the independent TRIP report, Montana is third in the nation for fatalities per miles driven, there are over 400 bridges structurally deficient and over 500 are structurally obsolete. Thirty-four percent of Montana’s major roads are in poor condition.

We haven’t raised the gas tax in nearly a quarter century and in the meantime fuel efficiency has resulted in us paying much less per mile towardsour repairs. It costs Montanans over $800 million a year in unfunded improvements and repairs and about the same in damage to vehicles and delays due to poor roads.

Over 20 highway patrolman are at risk of losing their jobs as a result of a loss of highway funding.

This bill offers three primary policies and promotes solutions intended to guarantee the money will be spent on road and bridge work. The three main policy areas are:

1) Efficiency – Requiring an independent audit of the Montana Department of Transportation. It’s an effort to compare our costs and expenses with similar departments in other states to make sure we are being as efficient as possible.

2) Revenues – Authorizing a raise in the gas tax of 8 cents and a raise of 7.25 cents in highway diesel. It does not include a raise in off-road diesel. It raises about $35 million to help the state capture $220 million in federal match dollars, about $22 million for counties and cities to work on bridges and roads and about $2.5 million a year for the Highway Patrol to avoid losing several officers due to budget cuts. Visitors will help pay this every time they fill up and all of the local dollars will be competitively bid. It requires these funds be spent on road and bridge work.

3) Accountability – Establishing a web page to allow anyone to see the projects being funded and every dollar raised and spent.

We can pay as we go for these improvements and we can get our out-of-state visitors to help us pay for them. We can turn an investment of $60 million dollars into $290 million with federal and local matching funds and we can save tens of millions more with safer and better roads.

We can continue to sit by and watch as the gap between what we pay and what we spend on road and bridge safety becomes ever wider or we can ask those who use them to help close that gap for what will amount to the cost of a latte or about $5 a month for most drivers.

I could ignore this, but it wouldn’t fix the problem and I believe it’s the right thing to do. The mission for me is road and bridge safety for our families and that’s why I’m sponsoring the Bridge and Road Safety and Accountability Act.

Rep. Frank Garner