Tester meets with Great Falls group on public infrastructure needs, challenges

Roads, utilities, public facilities and internet service were the focus of the infrastructure roundtable organized by Sen. Jon Tester.

At the school district office Friday morning, Tester heard about infrastructure needs from Greg Doyon, city manager; Bob Kelly, Great Falls mayor; Susan Wolff, dean/CEO of Great Falls College MSU; Brett Doney, Great Falls Development Authority; Brian Patrick, Great Falls Public Schools; Jane Weber, county commissioner; Nate Weisenberger, AE2S Engineering; and Corey Jensen, CEO of Vision Net.

This current city budget allocates $1.22 million to deferred projects. The Administrative Draft Capital Improvement Plan identified more than $24.697 million in capital maintenance needs for the current fiscal year, which already included many deferred projects, according to city documents.

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Among those deferred needs are the Civic Center facade, which was identified as a concern years ago, but the fix will be a multimillion dollar project. The city is currently working with CTA Group to develop necessary construction plans and documents to complete the needed renovations. The city awarded that $494,060 contract last fall.

Commission to consider engineering agreement for Civic Center repairs

The Civic Center was built in the 1930s under the Works Progress Administration, which was renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939. The program was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and funded by Congress’ approval of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act in 1935.

The WPA and later the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 were some of the biggest infrastructure projects in U.S. history, but now significant areas of American infrastructure are in various states of disrepair.

“We have not invested in infrastructure like we should have in the last 30 years,” Tester said. “We’ve taken our eye off the ball.”

Tester said he hears concerns frequently from constituents about infrastructure and U.S. competitors are investing in their infrastructure. To compete in the modern era, the U.S. needs to invest in infrastructure.

Earlier this month, Tester announced he was looking for public input on infrastructure and has invited counties, cities and tribes to share thoughts. He also invited school districts, hospitals and business organizations to weigh in.

“Our nation faces a number of infrastructure challenges,” Tester wrote to those community leaders. “I strongly believe that we must address these challenges by gathering input from local leaders, like you, who know where investments are most needed.”

[Tester’s letter to Montanans can be found here | Montanans can send their infrastructure priorities to Tester by e-mailing him at infrastructure@tester.senate.gov]

Earlier this week, President Trump announced during the State of the Union that he wants a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill. Tester said he’s hoping to use the community input to help craft the potential infrastructure bill to ensure it meets Montana’s most pressing needs.

“That’s why I’m traveling all across our state meeting with folks face-to-face to hear from them about what they want to see in the upcoming legislation,” Tester said. “Together we will fight for better roads and bridges, faster internet and stronger schools.”

Roads, bridges, water utilities and internet are the most basic priorities and should be the “bread and butter” of U.S. infrastructure. Expanded items like workforce training and funding for deferred maintenance for public facilities gets harder to fund at the federal level, he said.

The city has been more aggressive about utility upgrades through annual reviews of needs and rate adjustments to replace aging pipelines and water mains, as well as multimillion dollar projects at the water and wastewater plants. Those improvements are largely driven by regulatory requirements from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Funding support for the improvements has also dropped off from the EPA, Weisenberger said.

“It’s a perfect storm of challenges,” Weisenberger said of the regulations and aging facilities. “Challenges are mounting, the rates are going to have to cover it if there isn’t some other source of funding.”

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Weber said Cascade County hasn’t had an updated capital improvement plan in years. More than a decade ago, the estimated price tag on deferred maintenance needs was about $25 million.

Instead, the county has made infrastructure fixes when they reach crisis points, similar to what the city has done in some areas, including the Natatorium facade falling off the building last month.

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The county doesn’t often have the ability to finance major projects, like the $4 million courthouse roof replacement, Weber said.

“You can’t build half a roof,” she said.

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The county just finished the reconstruction of a portion of Fox Farm Road with a rural special improvement district, which is an additional assessment on residents in certain areas.

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“We have lots of other places in the county that need help and we can’t do a RSID,” she said.

In recent years, the county started converting paved roads back to gravel. So far 7-10 miles have been converted to gravel on Ten Mile, First Road South and River Road in the county. The cost of maintaining paved roads and/or reconstructing them can range from less than $100,000 to $1.7 million per mile.

“We cannot afford the asphalt,” she said.

State fuel tax funds are distributed counties, cites, towns and city-county entities based on specific formulas and the county distribution is calculated on a percentage of population, road mileage and total land area and then a ratio comparing each county to totals in the state.

The road mileage in Cascade County compared to the total rural mileage in all 56 counties and that means the distribution amount can change annually.

County prepping for office remodel, vehicle replacements, road improvements

The county’s share of the fuel tax was $197,854 for this fiscal year. Last year it was $196,674; for 2016 it was $198,794 and for 2015 it was $215,605.

County taxes have risen a little, but it’s insufficient to cover the needs, Weber said.

“Roads, for us, is a big issue,” she said.

Expenses and revenues for roads and bridges over the last few fiscal years in Cascade County were:

  • 2015: $4.098 million in revenue, $4,158 million in expenses
  • 2016: $4.527 million in revenue, $4.375 million in expenses
  • 2017: $4.941 million in revenue, $4.999 million in expenses
  • 2018: $5.825 million in revenue, $5.731 million in expenses

There is one bridge in Cascade County that has been identified for replacement: Armington Bridge over Belt Creek just off U.S. Highway 89.

Weber said the bridge is structurally sound, but during spring runoff debris backs up against the bridge and causes major maintenance problems. The county public works department wants to replace the bridge to raise it above the traditional high flood water level.

“It’s not just quality of life, it’s public safety,” Weber said of infrastructure.

Water and sewer districts are among those local infrastructure needs that locals have trouble funding.

There are nine public water and sewer districts in the county and they act as independent jurisdictional entities to provide safe drinking water and/or sewage treatment in subdivisions.

Those districts are Black Eagle, Gore Hill, Homestead Acres, Sand Coulee, South Wind, Stockett, Sun Prairie, Sun Prairie Village and Vaughn. Some others exist in the county but are tied to individual communities or businesses.

According to the county, it would be helpful if federal funding assistance was provided whenever federal regulatory standards change since that often means costly updates to infrastructure. The South Wind project was $4.78 and was funded through a combination of state and federal programs as well as loans through the state revolving fund.

Simms needs $1.7 million for an improvement project, far exceeding the residents ability to fund it through utility rates, according to the county.

“They need help,” Weber said.

The Expo Park is another public facility that’s been band-aided, but is in need of major repairs.

The county is working with the Tourism Business Improvement District to study underground utilities at the 133-acre park since it turns out no documents exist showing the location of those utilities or their condition.

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The study is part of the efforts to build a multipurpose event center at the Expo Park.

The TBID and county are pursuing a grant to help fund the study, which is an estimated $100,000, according to the county.

Tester asked Doyon and Kelly about whether a bypass was being considered.

The bypass is an idea that’s been kicking around for since the 1960s and the estimate around 2009 was $100 million to $150 million.

[READ: history and MDT overview of feasibility studies related to the bypass]

Doyon told Tester that before a bypass would be useful, a full interchange is needed at Emerson Junction. That area was recently rebuilt, but not as a full interchange.

That’s the most logical site for a bypass, Doyon said, and it would go to the north of the city. A northern bypass wouldn’t help the missile convoy traffic for Malmstrom Air Force Base, Doyon said.