Tester wants infrastructure bill, says funding can be found to pay for it

Sen. Jon Tester remains hopeful that party leaders will overcome their divisions and bring an infrastructure package to bear this year, saying it’s been needed for several decades.

State infrastructure advocates will be watching closely.

On a media call Tuesday, as Democratic leaders were set to meet with President Donald Trump to discuss the topic, Tester said the federal government could find the savings to fund a wide range of infrastructure repairs.

“I think we do need an infrastructure bill, but the hitch is, how you pay for it,” Tester said. “I’m not somebody who wants to tack another trillion dollars onto the debt. But we need an infrastructure bill. We’ve needed one for 20 years or longer.”

Tester believes funding could be found through savings in other federal programs, and by closing loopholes in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

“We just had the Army give up $5 billion. If you’ve got $5 billion to give up, you’ve got a pretty flush budget,” Tester said. “There’s some opportunities for savings there, and there’s opportunities in the tax code. It’s about making it a priority more than anything.”

A 2018 review by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Montana’s infrastructure an overall grade of C minus. Railways scored the highest while roads, stormwater and schools scored among the lowest and most in need.

Darryl James, director of the Montana Infrastructure Coalition, said the state is slowly falling behind its infrastructure needs and the costs will increase as repairs go unmet.

“We’ve seen a little improvement in schools, and that’s largely due to local communities bonding and investing significant amounts of funding,” James said. “Transportation overall is around a C minus. We’ve still got a significant backlog of pretty immediate work. We’ve got aging systems that are beyond their designed life and will start failing on us.”

When the 2017 Legislature boosted the fuel tax, it provided roughly $9.8 million in additional funding to address transportation needs. Still, the 2018 report suggests, an additional $15 billion will be needed just to maintain the state’s roadway system over the next decade. Projected funding will cover just 33 percent of that.

James said his organization is hopeful the federal government will look to increase the fuel tax to help fund an infrastructure plan. But that could be hard sell to some lawmakers, including Trump, who has hinted his reluctance to increase the fuel tax to pay for repairs.

“The coalition would be interested in seeing that, although we’d need to do some additional work at the state level again, and that would be a heavy lift,” James said. “Ultimately, we’re going to be looking at a different way to fund roads and bridges.”

The options could include a tax on vehicle miles traveled, James said.

“With increased fuel efficiency and more electric and hybrid vehicles, a gas tax is probably is not going to be the most efficient tool,” he said.

Beyond roads, an estimated $363 million in funding is needed for known wastewater improvements, while $1.15 billion is needed for what the EPA has identified as immediate water infrastructure improvements.

Federal funding allocated to such projects has diminished over the past few decades, James said.

“If you look at this historically, where we were 20 or 30 years ago, rural states like Montana were heavily reliant on federal funds, and we’re still reliant on federal funds,” James said. “The federal funding for municipal water, even rural water systems, has declined rapidly. That burden really relies on state and local governments right now.”

Tester said it’s time for Washington to present a plan and find ways to fund it.

“The truth is it has to be paid for,” Tester said. “Our economy is living off an infrastructure investment and education investments from a generation ago. You’ve got to have a plan and it’s about making it a priority more than anything.”