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Thursday, December 14, 2017

State funding uncertainty puts MDT projects in jeopardy

By Jason Stuart

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

Two major Glendive city street projects scheduled for 2019 may be in jeopardy if the Montana Legislature doesn’t do something before this session ends to shore up the Montana Department of Transportation’s funding.

MDT District 4 Administrator Shane Mintz said that unless something is done to increase the department’s available funding, he cannot currently guarantee the status of any planned project beyond this year.

“In terms of our federal funding and how that gets prioritized, the only thing I’m certain of is 2017,” Mintz said. “Beyond 2017, if we don’t have enough funding, some projects could get delayed.”

The two projects weighing on Mintz’s mind are a complete overhaul of most of the length of North Meade Avenue and a reconfiguration of Towne Street from a four-lane road to a three-lane road between the Towne Street Bridge and its intersection with Merrill Avenue.

The Meade project is being funded through the Urban Transportation Program, which is somewhat unique in that it leverages federal highway funding for improvements to major municipal streets, which normally do not qualify to receive federal funds. 

Local residents have long complained about the increasingly sorry state of Meade, and a drive down it can be bone-jarring. A portion of it will be resurfaced this summer in conjunction with Dawson County’s project to connect the West Glendive sewer system with the city’s new wastewater treatment plant, though it will not be a complete makeover. The MDT project on Meade will entail not only a complete rebuild of the street, but renovating the curb, gutter and sidewalks along it as well. The work the city does on it this summer is intended to be “feathered in” with the more comprehensive project when it gets underway.

However, the fact the project is tied to federal highway funding is what has Mintz concerned, as Montana is leaving an ever-growing pile of federal highway money it is otherwise entitled to on the table with every passing year. 

That is happening because federal highway funds — raised through the federal tax on gas and diesel fuel — require a percentage of matching funds from the state (not on a 1-to-1 basis), and those matching funds must be raised through the state’s own fuel tax.

The state’s fuel tax has not been raised in 24 years and has fallen well behind the rate of inflation. Mintz noted that situation has reached critical mass and is now threatening MDT’s ability to stay on track with the projects it has planned out beyond this year as the amount of federal highway funding the state is receiving declines each year.

“I’ve worked for MDT for 20 years, and I’ve never seen us in the boat we’re in now on the state match side of things,” Mintz said.

Mintz has no official stance on the fuel tax bill currently under consideration in the Legislature, which would raise the state tax on gasoline by 8 cents and on diesel by 7.5 cents. The bill narrowly passed the House and was had its first hearing in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee on Tuesday evening. However, during that Tuesday hearing, the Senate committee stripped down the bill  and voted 11-7 to amend it to a 4.5 cent gas tax increase that would raise again to 6 cents in 2023. The amendment also lowered the diesel tax to an extra 1.5 cents, with would incrementally go up to 2 cents by 2023.

Mintz did say, however, that if the Legislature doesn’t do something to address MDT’s declining purchasing power and its declining ability to leverage federal highway funding, he is “a little concerned” about the status of the Meade and Towne street projects, not to mention other projects a little further down the line, like the reconfiguration of Merrill Avenue.

“Do I have concerns over Towne Street and Meade Avenue being able to stay in 2019? Yes I do,” Mintz said.

 

Reach Jason Stuart at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.

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