Local officials talk gas tax at infrastructure event

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With a background of machinery laying new asphalt on a nearby road, about 18 people gathered at the Glacier Village Greens community center in Kalispell on Tuesday for a celebration of Infrastructure Week.

Webb Brown, president and CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, addressed the crowd that included several local politicians and candidates running for the Montana Legislature.

“This is great, we love that sound,” Brown said of the construction work happening behind him.

Brown used the event as an opportunity to express that while the state has dedicated large sums of money to infrastructure, the needs still outweigh the funding.

The American Society of Civil Engineers report card in 2014 gave Montana a C- grade for the state’s infrastructure. A 2015 Bureau of Transportation Statistics report indicated that 45 percent of Montana’s roads need to be repaired. Both statistics were included in a press release from the Montana Infrastructure Coalition promoting the Infrastructure Week tour stop in Kalispell.

Brown noted Tuesday that the Montana Chamber of Commerce supported a bill introduced by Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, that increased gas taxes in the state to raise money for infrastructure spending. The bill, approved last year, is projected to raise about $30 million per year. Approximately one third of the funds go to the state and funding for an audit on the way the state spends those funds. The other two-thirds of the revenue goes to local and county governments.

The gas tax is predicated on the idea that it will bring in funds from out-of-state tourists to help pay for the infrastructure they use when they visit.

As an example of infrastructure in dire need of repair, Brown pointed to the Russell Street bridge in Missoula, a major thoroughfare that crosses the Clark Fork River. He said it was the busiest two-lane bridge in the state, and as recently as two years ago chunks were falling off and into the river. Recent maintenance has improved the bridge and he wanted to see that trend of improvement continue.

“What we build today, we hope to be there for many years to come,” Brown said.

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, said he was against the gas-tax bill when it was in the Legislature. He thought counties should take advantage of their ability to raise such money on their own and keep the state out of it, but also said he was looking forward to seeing the results of the state audit to make sure taxpayer dollars were being spent in an efficient manner.

He said he wanted to see the money spent on infrastructure like roads, and not on brick-and-mortar government buildings or schools.

Skees is running for re-election this year against Democrat JoBeth Blair, who was also at the event.

Kalispell City Manager Doug Russell also spoke at the event, and detailed the work being done behind the presentation. He said city crews were working alongside a private contractor to resurface a road that hadn’t gotten much maintenance in decades.

Other local representatives and candidates in attendance included House District 8 candidate John Fuller, Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, House District 5 candidate Cindy Dyson, Flathead County Commission candidate and Kalispell Planning Board member Ronalee Skees, and House District 6 candidate Mary Custer.

Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or pfrissell@dailyinterlake.com.

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