Building bridges: Montana needs plenty of ’em

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It’s been known for some time that Montana’s roads and bridges need major upgrades. Four years ago the American Society of County Engineers estimated the state’s roads are in need of close to $15 billion worth of improvements.

Still, it was unsettling this week to learn that a new report by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association has listed several bridges in Flathead County as structurally deficient. Neighboring counties also have bridges in poor shape. In fact, the report showed a combined total of 74 deficient bridges in Flathead, Lincoln and Lake counties.

The industry association did a state-by-state look at bridge crossings in need of repair. The study found 515 of Montana’s 5,302 bridges rank as structurally deficient, a 10.8 percent increase from last year. In other words, the problem of our crumbling bridges is just getting worse.

In the Flathead, the deteriorating bridge over the Whitefish River on Montana 40 is the state’s fifth most-traveled deficient bridge, with close to 12,000 vehicles using it daily. That bridge deck span is in poor condition, a state highway official acknowledged, but the good news is that the Montana 40 bridge deck is scheduled for replacement in the near future. Other local decaying bridges include those on East Evergreen Drive over Spring Creek and Montana 82 over the Flathead River. Some bridges on U.S. 2 and U.S. 93 also got poor marks.

When Gov. Steve Bullock launched his plan two years ago to funnel millions of dollars into Montana infrastructure needs, he promised his No. 1 priority in the 2017 legislative session would be infrastructure investment. He stressed that repairing and upgrading roads and bridges is a key to the state’s continued economic success. Yet the Legislature adjourned a year ago, failing to pass an $80.3 million bonding infrastructure bill as budget concerns loomed.

In fact, the Montana Legislature has not passed a bonding infrastructure bill in three of the past four biennial legislative sessions. Earlier attempts died in the House in 2011, 2015 and 2017, and in 2013 Bullock vetoed a $55 million public works bill because of budget concerns.

Of course the state can’t handle the infrastructure load by itself. Montana, like other rural states, relies on federal money to help maintain its roads and bridges. It remains to be seen what the federal government can bring to the table to help Montana’s infrastructure. President Trump is calling on Congress to pass legislation to generate at least $1.5 trillion to upgrade America’s roads and bridges.

Yes, that’s a lot of money, but there are few services as basic and vital as our transportation routes. Time is our enemy, with every passing year chipping away at our crumbling roads and bridges. Our state and federal leaders must come together and develop a reasonable spending plan that makes infrastructure improvement a priority.

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