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Secretary of Transportation Buttigieg visits Montana, celebrates infrastructure investments

by KEILA SZPALLER Daily Montanan
| May 8, 2024 12:00 AM

MISSOULA — Touting $5.3 billion of federal dollars coming to Montana, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said Monday investments in airport, road and other infrastructure projects have been sorely needed, already are having a positive effect, and are at amounts unprecedented in his lifetime.

Buttigieg spoke briefly at Missoula Montana Airport, which received $17 million from the federal Department of Transportation for the second phase of a terminal construction project. It opened a new $67 million terminal in 2022.

The airport has seen record growth in passengers in recent years. It remains a hardhat zone for the second phase of work, but director Brian Ellestad said it already has received wide recognition: Newsweek recently named Missoula Montana Airport a finalist for best small airport in the U.S.

To a group of local and state officials including legislators and city and county leaders, Buttigieg said partnerships between Montanans and federal officials were key to completing the terminal, as was the union labor that built it.

“We always love hearing about a project that comes in under budget on federal dollars,” Buttigieg said.

Over the years, the airport expanded since it opened with funds approved through President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1938, he said. However, he said the upgrades haven’t kept pace with growth in western Montana.

Along the way, lots of people wanted to fly to Missoula — “for reasons that I now understand better” — but doing so was cost prohibitive. He said the federal investments help needed expansion, which attracts airlines, which in turn creates competition and drives down ticket prices.

Investments in Montana airports are important to the economy so the Treasure State can do business with the rest of the nation, said Brian Sprenger, president and CEO of the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, the busiest in the state.

In a phone interview, Sprenger said Montana is remote — the only state in the lower 48 that’s not contiguous to a state with a city of a million or more — and air travel is critical to business.

“It’s the only way we can get things done relatively quickly is by being connected to the outside world,” Sprenger said.

According to the Department of Transportation, the Biden administration’s bipartisan infrastructure law is funding more than 508 specific projects in Montana. At the event, Buttigieg said federal support includes $2.4 billion in road modernization.

Buttigieg also highlighted a $24 million award to change U.S. Highway 200 near East Missoula from “a thoroughfare that bisects the community” into a main street that’s safer for bikers and pedestrians, along with $25 million going to a downtown Missoula project, and other initiatives.

“It’s a level of financial support from the federal government that we haven’t seen in my lifetime,” he said.

The DOT estimated $2 billion is going toward clean water and water infrastructure.

The investments are already translating into paychecks that mean people can buy Christmas presents or own a new home, Buttigieg said. He said the number of total construction jobs hit 8 million in September and has been reaching new records every month since.

Buttigieg also said he wanted to acknowledge Montana’s federal delegation and specifically U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, for the bipartisan infrastructure law. He said people such as Tester saw that Democrats and Republicans who didn’t agree on much could agree on funding for infrastructure.

“FDR had the New Deal,” Buttigieg said. “I call this infrastructure package the Big Deal — because it is a big deal … I think it recalls the best in the American tradition, which is having big visions and big aspirations and then going after how to get them done.”

Of the 51,000 projects the transportation department is funding, Buttigieg said not one of them was dreamed up from within agency headquarters. Instead, he said all of them came from community.

“And that’s how it ought to be,” Buttigieg said.

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan, a nonprofit newsroom.