Federal highway funding is sometimes cast as a political trump card. By threatening to withhold it, the U.S. government can coax states to sign on to unpopular legislation when most of the western ones would rather tell Washington to take a hike. (For readers aged 18 to 20, it’s the primary reason you can’t legally drink; the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 was tied directly to the Federal Aid Highway Act.) The federal bankroll for transportation projects is largely fueled by gas taxes, but, one way or another, everybody pays.
According to data compiled by the city-county Office of Planning and Grants, the Missoula area pays more into the system than the rest of Montana, but gets far less back. Figures show that the state’s mechanism for distributing federal highway funds shorts the city and county millions of dollars every year. Under the present system, state and federal Departments of Transportation (DOT) hold near-unilateral control over where the money goes geographically and how it’s spent.
The Missoula metropolitan area comprises 8.5 percent of the state’s population—as of the 2000 census, and that number has surely grown since—but makes up just 4.6 percent of Montana’s federal highway allocation, which is dispersed by the state DOT. Helena directly gives back a small amount of the gas taxes collected locally to Missoula city and county governments—about $2 million per year. Head county planner Roger Millar says his agency doesn’t have data showing how much gas tax is collected within Missoula County, but, if the average resident drives as much as any other Montanan, area motorists would have generated roughly $22.9 million last year.
Some local elected officials say the equation is rotten.
“My impression of the situation is that Missoula is not getting its fair share,” says Alderman Bob Jaffe. “Should we be subsidizing less populous areas or should we get more money? I’d like to see us get more of the money.”
But the problem isn’t just a matter of financial inequity; it’s also a power issue, Jaffe says. During the recent reconstruction of the Brooks-Russell intersection, a paperwork bungle by city staff prompted the U.S. DOT to revoke what little control of the project Missoula retained. Whether or not that situation drained the city’s reservoir of federal credibility is a matter for speculation, but what’s more evident is the increased out-of-town influence over subsequent Missoula road projects.
Municipal public works engineers are currently working with the DOTs to develop an overhaul of the Highway 93-Miller Creek intersection and a major expansion of Russell Street from Broadway to Mount. In both instances, the reliance on DOT-controlled funding has proven a point of frustration for neighborhood groups and elected officials alike who would rather go with their own plans.
Miller Creek residents want a bridge over the Bitterroot River as an alternate route out of the neighborhood. Russell Street neighbors would settle for anything less cumbersome than the five-lane leviathan federal highway officials are insisting on. Groups representing both communities frequently complain that DOT officials aren’t listening to them.
Rose Park neighborhood resident Linda Smith says various government agencies formed a committee several years back to discuss the impact of a widened Russell Street on the community. The concerns were that a five-lane street would knock out several houses and pin the quiet slant-street neighborhood between two major thoroughfares, but Smith says the committee never got a chance to air these grievances.
“They just sort of disbanded us without coming to any conclusions,” Smith says. “It’s not like we haven’t tried to get word out that this isn’t what we want.”
The city tried suggesting a middle ground between keeping Russell rustic and turning it into a freeway spur by proposing a narrower design with periodic roundabouts. The U.S. DOT quickly marginalized the idea, arguing the roundabouts would demolish a pair of historic buildings along the corridor. Missoula officials call the reasoning bunk as the project is likely to raise eminent domain issues no matter what.
“It feels like the influence of the DOT—it doesn’t even seem accurate,” Jaffe says of the feds’ anti-roundabout rationale. “That’s something we’re going to challenge.”
Adding injury to insult, roughly 12 percent of the money allocated for Russell—both federally and locally sourced—is getting gobbled up by DOT overhead.
DOT spokesman Doug Hecox responds that for both Russell Street and Miller Creek, it’s not end game yet.
“These projects take a long time before they can actually begin…The process of complying with NEPA requires some scientific rigor,” he says. “All along the way, if there are folks that feel this decision is not what’s best, to the extent possible, we’ll accommodate those concerns. There’s still time.”
Other states have legislated around the control issue completely by putting more cash directly in the hands of the community. The most commonly referenced example is California’s Senate Bill 45—enacted in 1998—which hands three quarters of the state’s massive federal highway funding slice directly to regional transportation authorities. Though undoubtedly more bureaucratic, the system allows for greater local direction of transportation projects. Similar legislation in Montana would mean the Missoula metro area would have enough money to pursue its own projects.
The state DOT argues that if the entire country distributed its funds this way, ultra-rural Montana would hardly get anything. Millar agrees that, strictly in terms of population, Montana as a whole gets more than its fair share, but considering the commercial interstate traffic it sees, that part of the equation makes sense.
“We need to sit down and have a conversation about how the funding is allocated here in Montana,” Millar says. “I think it’s likely to happen at a legislative level.”
Dick Haines, a Missoula alderman and former state legislator, says he’s all for more local control, but suspects funding reform would just leave somebody else holding the strings.
“The federal process is asinine,” Haines says. “I think we could definitely get [Russell] done faster. But the devil’s in the details.”