Grunke Column: Montana is at a crossroads

Montana is at a crossroads.

Either we can invest in the infrastructure needed to provide for a healthy economy, or we can continue to let politics and public malaise jeopardize that investment – and, by extension, opportunities for economic growth.

I’ve debated writing about infrastructure for months, worried about its lack of “sex appeal” and hoping to avoid the politics that surrounded the issue during the 2015 Montana Legislature.

But investments in infrastructure lay the foundation for economic growth and development. The construction of roads, bridges, power transmission lines and other improvements creates jobs. Once completed, those projects help increase wealth and improve every citizen’s standard of living.

Historically, improvements and advances in infrastructure underpinned America’s economic growth and prosperity. We built canals and transcontinental railroads in the 19th century, and interstate highways in the 20th. More recently, investments in telecommunication and internet networks were launch pads for our 21st century economy.

As new technologies and needs emerge, infrastructure must be maintained and modernized. The Political Economy Research Institute estimates that the United States must invest at least $87 billion annually to improve the efficiency and productivity of its infrastructure. For every $1 billion spent, the institute says, 18,000 jobs are created.

Nations that invest in infrastructure are better positioned to attract foreign investment, stimulate commerce at home and abroad, and support local businesses. The same is true for our state and community.

Given our relative distance to major markets, Montana’s transportation infrastructure plays a critical role in delivering our products and raw materials to consumers.

Our roads, highways and bridges move commodities such as livestock and grains; our railroads transport Montana’s abundant natural resources, including coal and timber; electric transmission lines deliver power from our generating plants to homes and businesses across the West; phone and fiber optic lines and cell towers connect Montana’s small businesses to industries and customers worldwide.

Investments in public infrastructure create momentum for private investment and economic growth. Entrepreneurs, investment dollars, and existing and start-up businesses are attracted to communities with superior infrastructure and services – and a demonstrated commitment to their maintenance and expansion.

And yet the Montana Legislature ended its 2015 session without approving a $150 million measure funding infrastructure and building projects across the state. SB416 included $100 million in grants and loans for local infrastructure upgrades and $50 million for a dozen state building projects.

The political debate focused on a few of SB416’s projects, particularly the renovation of a dormitory at Montana State University and construction of a new Montana Historical Society museum. The vast majority of legislators, it appeared, were supportive of the grants and loans for local infrastructure work.

Still, the entire package of projects died when SB416 couldn’t muster the two-thirds majority required for consideration in the Montana House’s final minutes, leaving crucial infrastructure work unfunded for at least another two years.

As unsexy and politically charged as it is, Montana’s investment in infrastructure is absolutely essential to our economic growth and development – statewide and locally. Thus, the crossroads where we find ourselves in 2016.

Every citizen of Montana has a stake in the maintenance and enhancement of our infrastructure. Doing nothing is no longer an option. We must come together now to make our voices heard if we truly want to set the stage for healthy economic growth and development.

James Grunke is president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership. He writes a monthly column for the Missoulian’s Western Montana InBusiness section.

Missoula Economic Partnership | 500 N. Higgins Ave. | Suite 300 | Missoula, Montana 59802 | P: 406.541.6461 | F: 406.541.6464