Montana Department of Transportation Director Mike Tooley told the Montana Contractors Association this week that it is delaying $144.5 million of road projects across the state as it faces a budget shortfall that could ultimately kill the contracts altogether, said association Executive Director Cary Hegreberg.

Thirty projects across the state are affected, according to a list Tooley's office provided the association. Of the $144.5 million total price tag, $130 million would come from federal sources and $14.5 million from state funds required as a match.

"We are very frustrated that this problem wasn't identified and dealt with prior to now," Hegreberg said. "We're very disheartened that the governor's proposed budget does not deal with the issue, and we certainly will be imploring the Legislature and the governor to work together as quickly as possible to fix the problem."

In short, the Highway Special Revenue Fund was projected to run out of money by July 2017, the end of the fiscal year, if immediate cuts were not made. Future budgets also will be affected unless the Legislature can bring in new revenues. The same declines have led Gov. Steve Bullock to propose cutting Montana Highway Patrol positions.

The Montana Infrastructure Coalition has proposed a 0.10-cent increase to the state gas tax and has supported bills to allow cities to pass local option taxes as ways to generate additional revenue to keep planned projects funded in addition to funding additional investments.

Legislators from both parties have said infrastructure funding is a top priority for the session that starts in January, although the details are likely to draw heated debate.

Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, said Wednesday that the proposals from the infrastructure coalition are under consideration, but most members of the GOP caucus have already told him they do not support any increases to taxes, including the gas tax.

While he had learned about the proposed cuts to Montana Highway Patrol staff weeks ago, he said the news about canceled road contracts was new this week, so he had limited comment about the situation or why the shortfall was not flagged by legislators who have for months been reviewing the state of the state's revenues. He chalked it up, in part, to legislators being busy preparing for the session and speculated that both cuts might have been manufactured to some degree by the governor's office to pressure the GOP.

"I think that's part of why this is happening, they want to put pressure on us to pass a gas tax," Knudsen said.

(c)2016 The Montana Standard (Butte, Mont.)