By Martin J. Kidston
When a highly anticipated bill takes effect in two years, road crews working with the Montana Department of Transportation can expect an increase in work of up to 40 percent, the department recently said.
When Senate Bill 333 takes effect on Jan. 1, 2001, the maintenance of Montana's paved, secondary roads will be turned over to the state, moving the burden from the shoulders of small county governments to the beefier, more apt state road crews.
"This will be a gigantic takeover," MDT District Manager Mick Johnson said. "We've met with all the counties, and come July 1, 2000, we're going to start phasing in the takeover."
The takeover, as Johnson put it, will necessitate that state crews maintain an additional 6,000 to 7,000 miles of paved, secondary roads across Montana. To handle the increase, Johnson said the MDT has ordered $9 million worth of new trucks.
While the MDT spent $257 million in federal money in fiscal year 1999, Johnson said TEA-21, or the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, will also help pay for state reconstruction projects, such as the $5 million rebuild of Highway 2 west of Havre.
"TEA-21 is a federal highway funding bill," Johnson said. "It's a six year bill which began in 1998, and will end in 2003."
Johnson said TEA-21 funding provides Montana with the money which pays for 86 percent of the state's road reconstruction projects. The state gas tax pays for the other 14 percent.
With all the funding in place and new equipment on order, Johnson said the department must now meet federal guidelines ensuring the state's secondary roads are properly maintained -- an exchange, of sorts, that equates to adequate funding for proper secondary road maintenance.
"In some cases, the secondary roads weren't being maintained," Johnson said, explaining the logic behind SB 333. "In some counties, the general maintenance wasn't as good as it should be, because some of the counties don't have the abilities to do this."
Hill County Commissioner Doug Kaercher said Hill County road crews have done an excellent job maintaining the county's secondary roads. But with more than 240 lane miles of paved, secondary roads, the most in the state, and some big projects that are desperately needed, the state's takeover looks welcoming.
"Financially, the cost of maintenance is quite substantial," Kaercher said. "Pavement is some of the highest cost to county maintenance, and the state is more prepared to deal with that."
Kaercher said Hill County spends nearly $100,000 a year from the county budget simply doing crack sealing and patching.
"That's absolute minimum maintenance and does not include plowing, mowing, striping or paving," Kaercher said. "If we did the level of maintenance which the state is promising, our costs could reach $500,000."
With the Havre West Project running at around $5 million, and the impending Beaver Creek Project estimated to cost another $6 million, Hill County is seeing some big spending for big projects. But without the state's help, Kaercher said, the county would be unable to tackle such high-cost projects.
"There's absolutely no way the county could do that without the state," Kaercher said. "A few years ago, we did a simple one-inch overlay for one mile of highway north of Rudyard, which cost us $100,000. That's just for reference when looking at the costs."
And because Hill County has a large network of secondary roads, MDT Deputy Director Jim Currie confirmed in a letter to Sen. Greg Jergeson that work loads in the area will increase dramatically, therefore making it necessary to maintain a highway facility in both Havre and Shelby.
This helps quell earlier rumors that the MDT was planning to relocate its Havre shop to Shelby in an effort to consolidate and realign facilities. It's the second time the rumors have been quashed in so many months.
"We have no intention of closing our Havre facility and relocating the area office to Shelby," Currie wrote to Jergeson. "There will always be a need to have a facility in Havre."
"Depending on recruitment trends, we may have an option to fill some positions in either location," Currie added. "In any case, it is our belief there will be additional employment opportunities at both locations."