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When Mountain Line ordered new buses in January, transportation officials had little reason to believe the $2.3 million purchase would cause headaches.

The money was reserved. In September, though, the federal transportation bill expired and left local and state transportation authorities in limbo. Money is flowing, but it's coming in one small chunk at a time, and so far, Congress extended the federal bill just through the middle of December.

"It's so important that the continuing resolutions fully fund what we planned to do this year, especially in that instance (of bus purchases)," said Ann Cundy, senior transportation planner in the Office of Planning and Grants. "It's not just (that) we want to move this project forward. It's moving. It's on a giant truck on its way here. We have to pay for it."

She said Mountain Line is proceeding as if the money for those seven buses will be available, but long-term funds aren't guaranteed. The squeeze means uncertainty for local projects, and it has transportation officials juggling to make sure large payments aren't due at once.

These months are stressful, but the news isn't all bad for places like Missoula. With the old bill expired, energy is building across the country for Congress to adopt one that would make streets like Russell easier to rebuild and give locals more say in how to spend transportation dollars.

"We believe there's momentum right now in the next 12 months to do this bill," said James Corless, director of Transportation for America. "There is widespread bipartisan support for rethinking our transportation policy."

Transportation for America is a coalition with a broad base of members, including the National Association of Realtors and AARP on the national front, and here at home, the Missoula Advocates for Sustainable Transportation, the Missoula City-County Health Department and New West Health Services, among others.

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One of Missoula's top transportation priorities is Russell Street, and Public Works director Steve King said there's much work that can get done even during the waiting game. There are comments to respond to and project development to do, or work on paper that doesn't require a big contract but does move things forward.

"I don't know that there's actually going to be any delays," King said of Russell. "From our perspective, we're working at all speed to move the project into implementation."

He said he expects the Federal Highway Administration to issue a final decision - called a record of decision - by summer 2010. Then, the project ostensibly can move into the design phase.

As with the new buses, money has been set aside for Russell. The expiration of the transportation bill doesn't affect a $5.9 million federal earmark, but it does throw in limbo another stream of federal money that comes from the Montana Department of Transportation.

Agency director Jim Lynch said Missoula has the money reserved - as long as MDT gets the funds it's expecting. And so far, Congress has made no guarantees past mid-December.

Lynch said a one-month delay on bidding already has taken place for a couple of highway projects outside Missoula, although the bottom line hasn't yet taken a hit. But Montana winters mean shorter construction seasons and a narrower window for bidding compared to, say, Florida.

So until there's a new highway bill, Lynch said he hopes for a longer extension so crews know the work that's lined up for them come construction season. So far, the money is arriving a little at a time, which makes planning hard.

"We're just hoping they can give us an extension of time long enough that we can plan and run our program rather than one month at a time," Lynch said.

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While King, OPG's Cundy and others are shepherding projects through the stressful months between bills, advocates are pushing Congress to tackle transportation reform soon after health care reform.

Transportation for America's Corless said the draft bill looks favorable so far. The coalition is pushing for a program that invests in the many different kinds of trips people take, such as running errands from home, and one that isn't focused mostly on highways.

Since state highways are already built, Corless said smaller transportation authorities such as Missoula's metropolitan planning organization should play a larger role in setting their own courses and getting the money to do so.

"Places like Missoula need more money and more authority to make these decisions," Corless said. "Even if Missoula is a small town nationally, you're a region in Montana. And so far, it's been that the states have made all the decisions and been in the driver's seat. It's our belief, not to cut the states out, but we need to share some power and responsibility and money."

Footing the bill, of course, is another challenge, as it is with the local buses. Cundy said she expects to learn in December if the full $2.3 million will be available in January, so this purchase should be resolved in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, it isn't clear whether extensions will come one month at a time, or when the matter will become a priority in Washington, D.C. Waiting too long might mean facing a different Congress or butting against a presidential election cycle, but waiting isn't altogether new, either.

"This happens every six years," King said. "I'm not complacent, but I'm not panicked either."

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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