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Montana anticipates boost in federal highway funding

By Ted Monoson
Billings Gazette

WASHINGTON – Money and jobs would flow to Montana and Wyoming under a six-year, $311 billion highway bill that the Senate will begin working on next week.

"The long and short of it is we are doing quite well," Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., told state officials and Montana contractors in a Thursday conference call.

The new law as proposed would boost highway spending in Montana by 130 percent, with road improvements for the Going-to-the-Sun Highway in Glacier National Park and the historic Beartooth Highway among others.

But there's a catch.

Baucus said Montana would likely lose a portion of its funding if the state does not pass a law prohibiting open containers of alcohol in vehicles.

Passing the new highway bill may be a difficult task because of squabbling over how much money should be allocated for projects and how it should be distributed.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee work on a $375 billion version of the bill was supposed to begin next Tuesday but has been postponed.

"We are going through some difficult times, but hopefully we will not need another extension," Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo.

Baucus is the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which will work on a portion of the bill on Monday (Feb. 2). The Finance Committee has jurisdiction over how much money is set aside, while the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has jurisdiction over how the money is spent.

Baucus is confident that the final version of the bill would provide generous amounts for Montana transportation projects because besides being the most senior Democrat on the Finance Committee, he is also a senior member of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Thomas is also a member of both committees and is keeping an eye out for Wyoming's interests.

Under the formula that the Senate is considering that Montana would receive an average of $369.5 million a year for highway projects, growing from $322 million in 2004 and increasing each year to $437 million in 2009.

That would be a huge increase over the $160 million a year Montana received under the 1998 law.

Wyoming would receive $265 million a year under the formula, up from $192 million under the old law.

"The basic highway bill is a formula for the states, and they set their priorities," Thomas said.

Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., a member of the House Transportation and Infra-structure Committee, is looking to provide money for specific projects.

Rehberg is confident that the House version will include $23 million for Montana Secondary Highway 323 from Ekalaka to Alzada and $22 million for a four-lane western bypass on U.S. 93 around Kalispell.

The final version of the bill will likely include financial penalties for states that do not have laws prohibiting open containers of alcohol in vehicles.

"I think the open container issue will be quite touchy," Baucus said.

"We'll have to work on that. There is a lot of support for sanctions on states that do not have open container laws."

Baucus said he did not support sanctioning states without open container laws but said it would be difficult to block the sanctions.

"I think states should make up their own minds, but I am not the only one back there," Baucus said.