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Confronted with facts on Montana’s severely deteriorated roads and bridges, the majority of the 2017 Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock took action to make travel in Montana safer.

With the first increase in the state’s gas and diesel taxes since 1994, the Bridge and Road Safety and Accountability Act directed $29.3 million to road safety projects statewide last year, according to the Montana Department of Transportation. Nearly $14 million was allocated to MDT, and more than $13 million was allocated among cities and counties. That was the first increase in fuel tax revenue for local governments in 34 years.

The MDT revenue allowed the state to match federal highway funds at the amazing rate of 87 percent federal money, 13 percent state. With the BRSA tax increase of 4 ½ cents per gallon of gas and a smaller increase on diesel, MDOT was able to draw down all the federal matching funds available to Montana.

Without the BRSA boost, Montana would have lost federal funding.

The BRSA money has been a boon to local governments. This year, Yellowstone County will receive about $400,000. The city allocations include about $1.75 million for Billings, $124,381 for Laurel and $6,198 for Broadview. Every county and city in Montana shares in this new revenue.

The BRSA includes provisions to ensure transparency and accountability. All projects funded with BRSA money are posted online for public inspection.

Cities and counties are responsible for matching every $20 of BRSA grant money with $1 of their money. The law requires local governments to identify the projects they will do before the funds are disbursed.

What do Montanans get for the 4 ½-cent per gallon tax increase?

In Yellowstone County this summer, about eight miles of county roads will get asphalt overlay, according to Tim Miller, head of the county road department. BRSA projects include work on 64th Street West, Coburn Road, Shepherd-Acton Road, Scandia Road and 80th Street West. The overlay work costs about $200,000 per mile, so the BRSA will allow the county to complete 2 miles that wouldn’t otherwise get resurfaced.

“It’s been a great thing for the county,” Miller said.

In Billings, the city will use this year's BRSA money for overlays and chip seals on city streets, according to Jennifer Duray, deputy public works director. Last year, the BSRA allocation funded road projects at 24th Street West and Central Avenue, in Briarwood and Cedar Park.

Over time, the law will direct 65 percent of the BRSA revenues to local government road projects and 35 percent to the MDT to match the federal funds. The MDT doesn’t receive any state general fund dollars, and none of the state fuel tax flows into the general fund.

This is a smart arrangement in our vast state with more road miles than people. When we Montanans fill up our vehicles, we know that the state tax we are paying goes toward highway safety. Incidentally, the 12 million out-of-state visitors who drove through our state last year paid about 40 percent of the fuel tax.

So far, the amount of BRSA revenue collected is within a half of a percent of what was projected, Lori Ryan, MDT spokeswoman said last week. Local governments claimed and received virtually all of the revenue available to them.

“The intent of the BRSA was to allow MDT to continue to match the federal aid program and deliver projects,” Ryan told The Gazette. “It has worked exactly as it was intended by the Legislature.”

Getting the BRSA enacted wasn’t easy — even with great need for fixing crumbling roads and unsound bridges, even with broad support from Montana businesses and local governments. Many lawmakers are dead set against any tax increase for any reason. Montanans are hearing that “no tax” mantra again in the 2019 session.

The BRSA is proof that a modest, carefully constructed tax increase can be a very good decision for Montanans. Without this law, Montana would have had to forego roughly $87 million in federal highway funds. State and local projects would have been delayed or canceled. Fortunately, the money was available. It is making commercial and personal travel safer and more efficient, putting Montanans to work and circulating in our communities as highway crews spend their pay checks. The BRSA works for Montana.

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The Billings Gazette

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