HELENA — Since 1998, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus has helped pass three highway bills that have brought more than $4 billion in federal highway funds to Montana.
Baucus also has worked to protect the formula ensuring that large, rural states get their share of highway funding.
“Sen. Baucus is known not only in Montana, but throughout the country as a champion for good ideas and for highway funding,” said Cary Hegreberg, executive vice president of the Montana Contractors Association. “He's been a huge asset for the state of Montana and for the construction industry.”
Hegreberg said Montana gets about $400 million-plus annually from the highway funding bill. Of that, $300 million to $325 million goes for highway construction projects. The rest pays for state Department of Transportation staff.
“Year in and year out, the Department of Transportation is the largest owner of construction projects in the state of Montana,” he said.
And if people in the state agency don’t get the projects out the door, their careers could be in trouble, Hegreberg said: “If Max delivers the money, you better darn well use it.”
A top union official also praised Baucus’ efforts.
“I’m sure they were substantial for a state like Montana,” said John Roeber, president of the Montana Building and Construction Trades Council. “It took us some time to have that kind of rank and power to invest in our infrastructure.”
Mike Tooley, director of the state Department of Transportation, said department officials calculated that Baucus’ efforts have increased federal highway funding in Montana about 233 percent since 1990.
“He’s taken special care to make sure Montana has a great highway system and is connected to the rest of the United States,” he said.
Tooley, who previously headed the Montana Highway Patrol, said if Montana received its highway funding based on its sparse population, the state could never afford to build and maintain the number of highway miles it has done.
“If it weren’t for Sen. Baucus, we wouldn’t have the highway system we have, for sure, in Montana, although we would have done our best,” Tooley said. “He definitely made sure that Congress understood the need for the rural states, especially.”
All three men say Baucus’ departure could make it tougher for Montana and rural states to get the highway money they’ve been receiving.
Tooley said the state Transportation Department will have to work harder to make its case for more highway funding without Baucus.
“We will still be pretty successful,” Tooley said. “But we don’t have the confidence we did before with Sen. Baucus.”