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New highway surface gets paint job

HighMark Traffic Services workers John Degenhart, Preston Schock and Doug Martin paint turn-lane signs ontp a newly paved section of Old Highway 312 near Shepherd last week.

HELENA — The Montana Transportation Department is spending millions of dollars this spring, summer and fall to build and repair highways and bridges across the state and create thousands of jobs.

“Business is booming in Montana,” said Mike Tooley, director of the Montana Department of Transportation. “The Legislature treated us pretty well. They realize the importance of transportation infrastructure investment. Transportation is an easy sell.”

Tooley said lawmakers gave the department the budget authority it sought. The department received the OK to spend $438 million in federal and state money this year. About 85 percent — or $372 million — is being spent this spring, summer and fall.

Most of the money comes from the federal government from fuel tax and other sources of funds, he said.

“If you see construction out there, usually 87 percent of all projects is federal (money),” the director said.

Most highway construction takes place from spring through fall, Tooley said, although some work on bridges can be done year-around.

Cary Hegreberg, executive vice president of the Montana Contractors’ Association, estimated that about $300 million or $325 million of the total authority will be spent on the ground on highway and bridge construction projects in Montana. The rest goes for engineering, right-of-way acquisition and environmental permitting.

“The federal aid highway program continues to be a cornerstone of Montana’s construction activity,” Hegreberg said. “We’re encouraged to see the Department of Transportation geared up to award projects throughout the state.

“The Transportation Commission generally does a good job of prioritizing projects and allocating money so that it’s spent efficiently throughout the state. Our member companies benefit hugely from highway construction activities.”

So do workers.

“We estimate over 12,000 jobs this year are supported by highway construction,” Tooley said.

Tooley uses the Federal Highway Administration estimate that 27.8 jobs are created by every $1 million spent.

Al Ekblad, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, said he’s seen estimates that the highway projects here are creating 13,500 jobs.

He said the AFL-CIO has always figured that every $1 spent in federal highway money on highways and bridges results in an additional $5 in additional economic activity such as hotel bills for construction workers and supplies needed for the jobs.

“It’s an economic catalyst in Montana, and the jobs are critical to the construction workers, especially in the crafts,” Ekblad said. “Highway construction work is bread-and-butter work from my perspective for a multitude of workers.”

He said they’re all good-paying jobs under the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires contractors and subcontractors to pay local prevailing wages on public works projects. What’s more, highway construction jobs usually provide health insurance and pensions.

Tooley said transportation often is “a huge economic engine” in other ways, too.

For example, the completed construction of the Custer Avenue interchange in Helena was a $21 million project that Tooley said “will pay for itself year after year.” A number of businesses, some new to the area, have sprung up around the intersection, with more likely to locate there.

Despite the millions of dollars spent on Montana highways and bridges this year and every year, the department never has enough money to address all the construction needs.

Tooley said the Transportation Department inventoried projects to figure out how much it would cost to fix all highways and bridges. The estimated tab: $15 billion.

“But that’s not going to happen,” he said, adding that the department motto is to provide “the right place at the right time” for its work.

Tooley said the congressional sequestration of federal funds didn’t touch transportation funds, for which he is grateful.

He praised the long work of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., on the federal transportation bill to make sure Montana gets its fair share. Baucus, a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has fought back efforts by more populous states to take highway money away from large, less populated states like Montana.

“Sen. Baucus has done a great job,” Tooley said.

Baucus is not seeking re-election in 2014.

Tooley said it’s fortunate for Montana that Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., elected last year, was assigned to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the House.

Highway safety remains an important concern for Tooley. He served as a Montana Highway Patrol trooper for 28 years, including the past four years as colonel and chief of the patrol before Gov. Steve Bullock in December appointed him to head the Transportation Department.

The department will spend $500,000 in both the Billings and Missoula areas to improve the interstate off-ramp signage and painted directions. The goal is to prevent intoxicated people from driving onto the off ramps and onto the interstates in the wrong lanes.

In both the Billings and Missoula areas, fatalities have occurred after drunken drivers drove onto off ramps and onto interstates going in the wrong lanes.