highway, stock

I want to thank Rep. Manzella for her March 10 column: “Increase gas tax, who wins and who loses?”

That is always a good question to ask when considering the effects of important legislation. Unfortunately, Rep. Manzella’s cost/benefit analysis is short on facts and fails to tell the whole story. She confuses our ability to pay for road and bridge projects with other types of infrastructure projects that cannot be financed using highway trust fund dollars.

I applaud her for her sentiment that: “When I am voting to spend the hard earned dollars of the Montana taxpayer, I don’t want to take the easy less responsible way out.” Unfortunately, I believe that Rep. Manzella is taking the easy way out by omitting relevant facts and not painting a complete picture. If she was being truly responsible, she would acknowledge that we stand to lose significant federal funding for highway projects because Montana may have insufficient state funds to match federal funding available through Federal Highway programs.

She should admit that, although we have more miles to care for than many other states, Montana also receives a disproportionately greater share of federal funds. Another important oversight on her part is that cars are now more fuel efficient. We are consuming less fuel and are generating less revenue, while construction costs have gone up and we still have the same number of miles and bridges to maintain.

Rep. Manzella claims the reasons we are short of funding is because the state is “over spending.” She claims that the $220 million identified as a possible “savings” by not filling current vacancies is the solution to not raising the gas tax.

However, some of these vacancies are likely for jobs needed by the highway department. At least some of them are needed to plan, design, and oversee construction. Without these positions, how would we ensure that construction contracts are carried out in a timely, efficient and effective manner? Not to mention these are jobs that could be filled by Montanans who need a good paying job.

Lastly, Rep. Manzella could be more precise in using the word “infrastructure.” That word is all inclusive and also covers critical health and safety projects like water systems, sewer systems, school buildings, etc. that also need funding. Although there is a very large need for such projects throughout the state, these projects cannot be paid for by fuel taxes. By lumping a wide variety of infrastructure projects, she is only clouding the discussion regarding specific highway related proposals and the value of increasing the state fuel tax.

Every one of us who drive every day benefit from taxes added to the price of fuel. There is a federal tax and a state tax. The federal tax pays for our interstate highway system built for national security and interstate commerce. The state tax helps fund all other roads in the state, except county and city roads.

Considering the number of miles of roads and bridges that fall under the care of one of those levels of government and that roads weave in and out of those jurisdictions, I can only imagine how complicated it must be to keep them all in a safe condition, let alone fund them seamlessly while dealing with a growing and more demanding population.

Admittedly this all costs money and if we want the work done, the money has to come from somewhere. If we refuse to pay, we don’t do the work and, yes, this is a way to control “overspending.” Unfortunately, when we don’t do the work on roads and bridges not only do we jeopardize public safety, but we also reduce our state’s desirability as a place of commerce, our attractiveness for tourism, and the everyday convenience to Montana citizens. As importantly, we pass on an ever increasing IOU to our children. It’s pay me now or pay me even more later.

I respectfully suggest that if Rep. Manzella votes against an increase in the gas tax, despite what she says, she is taking the easy way out. It’s easy just to say no to everything. If she votes no, she will be voting against jobs and not doing the hard work we expect from our Representatives. She will be casting aside her responsibility to build a vibrant and healthy future for Montana.

If the gas tax legislation fails, not filling some existing personnel positions will provide a short term temporary fix to what she describes as an “over spending” problem. But in the long run, if we don’t face up to the need, the Montana Department of Transportation will have no choice but to delay construction projects, reduce maintenance, and be forced to reduce our existing inventory of roads and bridges. If that happens, we will all be losers.

– Margaret Gorski,