Newly available state fuel tax funds will help keep city street assessment among lowest in Montana
Last year, the legislature passed the Bridge and Road Safety and Accountability Act, which established a graduated increase in the fuel tax by 2023.
That’s a 6 cent increase for gasoline and 2 cents for diesel.
Each fiscal year, 35 percent or $9.8 million of the proceeds, whichever is greater, is allocated to the Montana Department of Transportation. The remainder, expected to be about $21 million by fiscal year 2021, will be allocated to local governments through the new BaRSAA program.
Beginning March 1, local governments can request distribution of their allocation from MDT. Those allocations must be met with a minimum 5 percent match.
“That’s pretty good locally, ideal for us,” said Jim Rearden, city public works director.
During their Feb. 6 meeting, City Commissioners approved a resolution allowing the city to request $371,362 in 2018 funding to pay for the construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair of city streets, alleys and bridges.
“It’s really a godsend,” Rearden said of the additional funding. Without it, Rearden said the city would likely have to increase the street assessment to cover the cost of needed street maintenance.
There was no increase in the street assessment this year. The hike was a 10 percent increase in fiscal year 2016. There was a 12 percent increase in fiscal year 2015. There were no increases in the three years prior.
The street maintenance assessment is based on square footage and land use types. Properties are assessed at $0.014702 per square foot with a 12,000 square foot cap for residential properties and those categorized as non-profit/cemetery organizations. The cap is 1 million square feet for commercial properties.
The city maintains 387 miles of streets and alleys; handles pavement rehabilitation and restoration; street cleaning; snow and ice removal; alley maintenance; nuisance weed removal; signals; signs and pavement markings.
According to data from public works, Great Falls has the third highest number of road and alley miles maintained by the city, after Butte-Silver Bow and Billings.
The city has the lowest total street assessment compared to Helena, Billings, Bozeman and Kalispell, according to city data. Based on the average 7,500 square foot residential property, the Great Falls street assessment is $110.27.
In Helena, it’s $160.71. In Kalispell, it’s $147.60. In Billings, it’s $92.01, plus an additional $37.65 arterial fee. In Bozeman, it’s $198.02, plus a $69.11 arterial fee.
The street maintenance program has three main funding sources: the street maintenance assessment, state fuel tax and now the BaRSAA funds. The city typically gets about $1 million annually from the state fuel tax. Those funds can be used for construction, reconstruction, maintenance, among other items, and may also be used to match federal funds allocated for road construction that are part of the primary or secondary road system or urban extensions.
The city’s street maintenance assessment funds the snow and ice removal program.
Roads are cleared based on priority. First priority roads are the 33.76 miles of signed snow emergency routes. Then crews move to the 59.18 miles of second priority roads, which are major arterials and special attention is paid to areas around schools, hospitals and commercial areas.
Third priority roads for snow removal are the 8.47 miles of collector streets that provide access to major arterials, including transit routes.
Residential streets, for the most part, haven’t been cleared for years. Rearden said public works cleared a residential street once and they got complaints for days.
City Manager Greg Doyon asked how much it would cost if public works were to clear snow from residential streets.
Rearden said the cost would “escalate” and likely be three times the current budget, as well as requiring additional staff and equipment.
So far this winter, as of the Feb. 6 meeting, there have been 41 days of snow fall for a total of 46 inches. The average annual snow fall for Great Falls is 63 inches, according to public works.
This year, the streets division of public works, started their winter operations on Oct. 2.
As of Feb. 6, the division had used 60 percent of its overtime budget and 45 percent of the sanding material.
Crews plow downtown and 8th Avenue North and push snow into the middle of the road for later pickup. That snow has already been removed four times this winter. On average, it gets removed five times, according to public works. Snow is also removed from streets adjacent to schools, other public buildings and streets with low storage areas. An estimated 18,000 cubic yards of snow have already been removed. That’s the annual average of snow removed, according to public works.
There was a break in the snow during January and the crews got to work with street sweeping.
Rearden said the street sweeping picks up sanding material and other debris, which helps keep storm drains clear. Last year, city crews logged 4,320 hours of street sweeping, Rearden said.