121414-mis-nws-ekalaka-sunday-02

Just outside Ekalaka, Montana Highway 7 stretches straight over rolling hills 36 miles north to Baker. Medicine Rocks State Park can be seen on the horizon at left.

Six years have gone by since Congress last passed a substantial bill to bolster the Highway Trust Fund. The longest-term fix in that time came in 2012, when funding for two years was approved.

Now, America is working on a two-month extension that runs out at the end of July.

It’s to a point where the Montana Department of Transportation took the occasion of its annual Good Roads Day on Tuesday to warn how bad the road ahead could get.

For every dollar MDT spends on road construction projects and the like, 87 cents come from a federal fund, MDT director Mike Tooley said in a news release. Money for the fund comes from a nationwide gas tax that has remained at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, while costs of keeping up the state’s roads and bridges keep rising.

“Available highway funding will cover less than a third of Montana’s projected $15.8 billion in transportation infrastructure needs over the next decade,” Tooley warned.

Good Roads Day usually flies low on the state government radar. It was designated by the Legislature in 1947 for the third Tuesday of each June, empowering the governor to “request the people of the state to contribute toward the improvement and safety of public highways.”

The transportation department celebrated its centennial on Good Roads Day two years ago. But this one came with a flashing warning sign.

“This is the first time MDT is alerting Montanans that if the transportation funding picture doesn’t change, we are going to start seeing changes in the good roads Montanans have come to expect,” said MDT spokeswoman Charity Watt.

People-light Montana relies heavily on federal dollars to keep its miles-heavy public road system in shape, said Lynn Zanto, MDT’s transportation planning administrator.

“Why we feel it’s a big deal this year is revenues are not keeping up with our needs,” she said. “That has sort of been long term and a building issue, but the gap’s only going to get bigger.”

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Ed Toavs paints an immediate face on the problem.

MDT’s Missoula district administrator said congressional funding or not, he’s committed to starting construction on the northern half of the U.S. Highway 93 bypass in Kalispell this fall.

“We have quite a bit of money invested in that,” Toavs said. “What it does is set all of our other planned projects back a year.”

The 10 miles of rough interstate between the Wye and Frenchtown ... Russell Street replacement and roundabouts at the Van Buren and Orange Street off-ramps in Missoula ... pavement preservation projects across western Montana ... all are pressing needs that stand to be delayed, Toavs said.

Even if federal funding is renewed at the same rate, he added, “we have all these concerns we’re not able to address."

“One great example are the I-90 piers in the (Blackfoot River) at Milltown. That’s a $15 million job to go replace them with two new bridges so you won't have piers obstructing the river flow," Toavs said. "I don’t even have that planned in the five-year red book. Sooner or later, that’s something that needs to be addressed.”

He’s worked in other districts of the state, and Toavs said he’s convinced the Missoula district has the most to lose when federal funds are cut or frozen.

“Not only do we have lots of road over here, we have a lot of traffic,” he said.

And it’s not just I-90 traffic.

Traffic engineers who studied Highway 93 from Hamilton to Whitefish found that every five-mile increment carries at least 5,000 cars a day. Reserve Street through Missoula gets 43,000, and Highway 93 through Kalispell is at 35,000, and many more when summer hits.

“You will not find a section of road in the state that has 200 miles of 5,000 cars a day,” Toavs said. “Not even on interstate. It calls into play (the question), what are we going to do about that capacity?”

Adding more lanes is only part of the picture, he said.

“How are the roads and bridges holding up to this increased traffic that we didn’t have 10 or 20 years ago? Its something that’s always on my mind. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed.”

"MDT is asking everyone to take this Good Roads Day to appreciate how transportation enhances quality of life," Tooley concluded in the news release. "But be prepared if the road gets a little rough in the future."

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian