Infrastructure a key concern during 2018 Business Days at the Capitol

By TIM BOULWARE

The 2018 Business Days at the Capitol featured business leaders and panels discussing the key issues facing Montana. One area in particular developed a great deal of interest at Wednesday’s event from the Best Western Premiere Great Northern Hotel. There is a significant challenge facing Montana in future years, what to do with the state’s deteriorating infrastructure.

“We’ve underinvested for a long time in the United States and in Montana in terms of infrastructure,” Tim Burton, Executive Director of the Montana League of Cities and Town said, “to the degree if we’re talking about schools or sewer and water systems or our roads and bridges, that they’re falling apart.”

Burton on one important step taken to address this problem head on.

“We created the infrastructure coalition a couple of years ago. We’ve been working with state leaders, for the first time in 30 years we passed an increase in gas tax, so we could start repairing our roads and bridges, and we going to have to define the problem relative to our other infrastructure needs whether it’s our school building or airports.”

Burton has asked for one important player to become more highly involved in taking a lead role for
infrastructure improvement.

“What we really need is to get the federal government back in the infrastructure game, because they
haven’t been participating to any great degree like they used to for the past ten years or more.”

Improving infrastructure is not just limited to road, bridges and schools. Improving access to broadband also came up in the discussion. Blackfoot CEO Jason Williams on some of the investments his company has taken in rural areas.

“Our most rural areas we have access to federal dollars, federal funding to help,” Williams said. “For example, in St. Ignatius, Montana, we spent four million dollars putting broadband infrastructure in the ground this summer. Next summer we looking at Charlo and Arlene, Montana putting in the same types of dollars.”

There is unfortunately a disconnect from isolated areas and those rural areas close to major cities in
Montana.

“Irony is the most rural parts of Montana actually have better broadband than some of the quasi rural or urban areas. The pit about trying to get better broadband accessibility in cities or on the outskirts of cities that’s a tough one because there is no federal funding earmarked for that, so we need to come up with a solution in Montana,” Williams said.

Ignoring this problem neglects something important for an area’s continued development.

“If you were to create a community from scratch today, I don’t see how a community can survive
without access to affordable broadband,” Williams said.

Panel discussions will continue Thursday from the Best Western Premier Great Northern Hotel.