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June 4, 2020 4:00 PM, EDT

Montana County Votes for Local Gas Tax

Missoula, Mont.Missoula, Mont., by akpakp/Getty Images

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Voters in Missoula County, Mont., recently approved a gas tax as a way to finance local transportation projects.

Missoula County, located in the mountainous western portion of the state, covers about 2,600 square miles. Specifically, voters approved a 2-cents-per-gallon local gas tax, which will not apply to diesel fuel.

The ballot measure appeared to Missoula County voters during the statewide elections June 2. Missoula County Department of Public Works Director Shane Stack said the decision, reflected in a nearly split vote, marks the first time any county in Montana has passed a local-option gas tax. Stack noted that economic uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic probably had an effect on votes.

Shane Stack

Stack

“I would expect if we had the same economy that we had six months ago, it probably would’ve passed with a little bit stronger support,” Stack told Transport Topics.

The gas tax is estimated to generate $1.1 million annually, which will be split equally between the city of Missoula and the county of Missoula. Trailing Yellowstone County, Missoula County ranks second in population in Montana. U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2019 list Missoula County’s population as 119,600.

“One nice thing about our situation is, in our county, we have only one incorporated city,” Stack said. “There are other counties in Montana that have multiple cities, so it would be quite challenging for other counties to try to figure out, ‘If this passes, how do we equally distribute those revenues to the different communities within the county?’ ”

For county purposes, Stack said revenue from the gas tax will be used to replace the aging fleet of equipment and support road maintenance activities, such as paving. He also said the county is interested in participating in the Federal Lands Access Program, which was created to improve transportation facilities that provide access to or are located within federal lands. The program supplements state and local resources and places an emphasis on highly used recreation sites.

In addition to national parks and forests, Montana contains a stretch of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Missoula County alone manages 91 parks and more than 40 miles of trails.

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“We’re surrounded by thousands of acres of federal lands, and a lot of our county roads lead to those lands,” Stack said. “You’re leveraging local dollars to utilize the federal dollars. We can get a heck of a lot more done with that.”

Out-of-state travelers visiting Montana’s outdoor recreation sites would be shouldering a portion of the Missoula County gas tax, Stack pointed out.

“We get a lot of visitors,” Stack said. “We’re wedged in between Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. The nice thing is we can utilize those visitors that are purchasing fuel here to have them pay for what is their fair share of road maintenance. Otherwise, it would be put on the backs of the local property taxpayers to fund the maintenance of those roads so that our guests can stay here.”

Pending a finalized agreement between county and city officials, Stack said he expects the gas tax likely will go into effect this fall.

“Thank you to the commissioners for putting it on the ballot and supporting public works and understanding that infrastructure is the backbone of our economy,” Stack said.

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