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Laurel interchange

Crews work on a new exit off of Interstate 90 on the west end of Laurel on Dec. 7. The gas tax increase effective last July 1 has increased state and local revenue available for traffic safety projects.

Montana is on its way to safer roads six months after a new law boosted the state gas tax by less than a nickel per gallon.

The first six months’ collections disproved many opponents’ objections.

Fuel volume sales increased about 2 percent while the price per gallon actually dropped right after the tax increase took effect, Mike Tooley, Montana Department of Transportation director, told The Gazette in a recent telephone interview from Helena.

Another major selling point for the gas tax increase is the enormous return on investment. The federal highway fund provides about 87 cents of every dollar the state uses for road construction. The state gas taxes cover the state’s 13-cent share. Few, if any, other states have such a large federal highway match.

Tooley said the federal funding formula recognizes that good highways in our state are critical links in Northwest transportation. He wants to make sure federal policy continues to reflect that value.

“That’s why we’re really paying attention to what’s going on in Washington,” Tooley said. “We don’t want them to change the formula.”

A broad coalition of Montanans — local government leaders, safety advocates, contractors, and economic development directors — supported an increase in the state gas tax. Montana’s 11 million annual visitors will pay the tax, too.

As of Jan. 7, collections from the 4.5-cent per gallon gas tax increase totaled $12 million out of the total $160 million in fuel taxes collected since July 1, according to Tooley.

Revenues from the 2017 increase have to be accounted for separately because the law specifies how the money is to be split between state and local governments. The law also requires the MDOT to set up a public website that will track each project.

Eventually, about one-third of that revenue will go to MDOT and about two-thirds will go to state and local governments. This is the first increase in gas tax dollars for cities and counties in 34 years.

The money will be allocated according to population and miles of road within the city or county.

MDOT will get about $10 million a year to match with federal funds, so that Montana can draw down all the money it is eligible to receive. Cities and counties will get about $20 million a year in the first years.

Yellowstone County tentatively plans to use its new gas tax revenue to pay part of the costs for overlay projects on Pryor Road south of Billings and on Drury Lane, McGirl Road, Hoskin Road and Vermillion Road in the Shepherd area, according to Tim Miller, director of public works. The county commission will make the final decision, he said.

The Billings City Council earmarked new fuel tax money for the annual street pavement rehabilitation, overlay and chip seal program, according to public works director Dave Mumford. Using those time-limited funds for the annual program would allow the city to direct other funds to the Inner Belt Loop, a large multi-phase project to connect Billings Heights with the West End over the next five years.

Yellowstone County received about $300,000 last year and is projected to see an increase of $171,000 this year.

The city of Billings received $1.7 million in state fuel tax revenue last fiscal year and is estimated to receive an increase of $1.5 million this year.

The highway safety revenue resulted from House Bill 473, sponsored by Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell. It passed despite opposition from most Yellowstone County GOP lawmakers. Rep. Geraldine Custer, Rep. Jeff Essmann, Sen. Duane Ankney and Sen. Tom Richmond were the only Republicans representing parts of Yellowstone County who voted for the safety funding.

Reasons for supporting HB473 are as valid now as they were when the Montana Legislature convened a year ago:

  • 30 percent of state roads are in poor condition.
  • Montana’s poor road conditions cost motorists an estimated $800 million annually in vehicle damage, crashes and congestion.
  • Montana’s fatality rate is among the worst in the nation.
  • Montana has more than 900 deficient or obsolete bridges.

Thanks to the lawmakers and Gov. Steve Bullock who had the political courage to do the right thing: to vote for public safety even though it required a tax increase.

The new law not only promotes safer travel, it provides ongoing funding. The 2019 Legislature will have to debate funding for most other things. Fortunately for everyone who travels in Montana, road safety funding was secured in 2017.

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