During a tour of a Billings steel products company Friday, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said he's optimistic Congress will pass an infrastructure bill.
"We need it to grow the economy," Daines said while being shown around True North Steel, a Fargo-based company that's shaping the steel that will be used in the West Laurel interchange off I-90 that will be installed beginning in spring. "The only question will be how we are going to pay for it."
Montana's junior senator said that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao met with Republican lawmakers at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia on Thursday to discuss what Daines called "our crumbling infrastructure."
"There was a lot of discussion yesterday," Daines said, but no consensus emerged. "It's a real challenge, but it's something we need" as Montana and the rest of the nation increase their share of exports — particularly, in Montana's case, food exports.
"Montana farmers feed the world," Daines said.
He said the recent tax bill's increase in the deductions allowed for pass-through businesses — from 17.4 percent to 23 percent — can help True North Steel hire the welders and others needed to clear away a mounting backlog of orders.
"In our operation, we're instrumental in the infrastructure of this country," said Jacques Leroy, True North Steel's site operations manager. "Since so many projects are backlogged, this is a great opportunity to show (Daines) we're ready ... It's a nonpartisan issue. Every one of us drives these roads every day."
The West Laurel interchange project was moved ahead several weeks, Leroy explained, tightening what was already a challenging schedule. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that some of the steel must be trucked in from mills on the East Coast, typically a three-week journey.
"That compresses our window," Leroy said.
The Billings plant employs about 100 people and could use up to 35 more. Two shifts of workers are employed, and the plant is open most days for 23 hours, said John Hoffmann, the plant's safety coordinator.
The Billings plant has operated 1,567 days — more than four years — without a work-loss injury.
2018 marks the 40th year that the current plant, at 1501 S. 30th St. W., has been operational.
Following his True North Steel plant tour, Daines stopped in Sidney at Canary USA, an oilfield service company. He has Saturday stops planned in Ekalaka and Baker. Those will be followed by visits to Dawson, McCone, Wibaux and Custer counties as part of his tour of each of Montana's 56 counties.