Opinion

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Reality Check

Building a Better Montana

Montana has champagne infrastructure needs, funded by a beer budget

I recently attended a Montana Contractors’ Association meeting. I think the summer meeting is primarily meant to give members a mid-construction season break from 16-hour workdays, but it appeared the attendees were also able to raise funds for good causes such as construction education and to coalesce on issues most important to the industry.

Tim Fox, current attorney general and candidate for governor, spoke and addressed the issues our Montana contractors and taxpayers face with respect to infrastructure needs. Montana has champagne infrastructure needs, funded by a beer budget. And while the federal government chips in 87 percent of the cost of federal infrastructure jobs in Montana, the 13 percent that Montana has in its coffers hasn’t grown much. Raising the gas tax has helped some, but in beer terms, going from Pabst Blue Ribbon to Miller Lite isn’t much of a leap and doesn’t get us to the funding level our infrastructure requires. Consider the local impacts to the Flathead Valley on our infrastructure: of the 13 million visitors to Montana annually, we receive between 3 and 4 million. There are about 100,000 people who live in the valley. That means for every one of us, there are 30 tourists. So, in simplistic terms, each of us pays for 30 other folks to use our roads, water and sewer systems. Fox spoke of this conundrum, noting that because Montanans don’t favor a general sales tax, we need to find an alternate solution that fairly allocates cost of use.

The infrastructure backlog continues to grow. Flathead County is currently inventorying all trails that have been either fully or partially grant funded over the years to determine the scope of the county’s maintenance obligations and to fully assess any backlog of needed maintenance. With the gas tax increase, the county receives almost $400,000 in additional gas tax dollars from the state annually; however, I fear the county will find the $400,000 wholly inadequate to address trails maintenance, let alone county road maintenance needs.

Membership at the Montana Contractors’ Association is diverse but united; it is not divided by political party or ideology, and it is focused on building a better Montana. Its concerns are concerns for all Montanans: conservation of taxpayer dollars through fair permitting processes and practical design to expedite the timeframe from bid to build; development of a long-term funding strategy to remove the full financial burden of infrastructure off of Montana backs and on to all users; and ensuring out-of-state contractors compete on a fair playing field with Montana contractors. As solutions to these issues will affect us all, please contact your state and local officials with any ideas you may have to help us build a better Montana.

Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.