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Funding gap forces local counties, resort tax district to help fund TIGER grant work

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Cars cruise down Montana Highway 64 on March 30. PHOTO BY TUCKER HARRIS

GALLATIN COUNTY – Gallatin County is facing another hurdle in the yearslong process to get TIGER grant roadwork off the ground in Big Sky. With a multiple million-dollar shortfall between the latest construction bids and available funds, local partners are determined to close the gap so the long-awaited improvements can begin this summer.  

The county announced its two most recent bids at a commission meeting last Tuesday. The lower of the two bids was more than $3.1 million over available funding for construction. Now, approaching three years since the grant funding was awarded and eager to move it forward, the Big Sky Resort Area District today committed approximately $573,330 to the project, a third of the deficit. The other two identified funding partners, Madison and Gallatin counties, have yet to confirm their own contributions.

“I think all of us want to see this project that has been worked on by so many come to completion,” BSRAD Board Chair Sarah Blechta told EBS. “We’d love to get it started. And I think the longer we wait, the greater the chance of the cost continuing to go up.”

The project’s history would indicate such risk exists. The county chose to rebid the project after the first submission, received nearly a year ago, came in roughly $3 million over budget. The second round of bids, opened in February, yielded no offers. Since the first bid round, developer Lone Mountain Land Company as well as the Montana Department of Transportation undertook of the projects originally within the TIGER grant work scope. Collectively, those projects cost approximately $1.5 million.

Still, the most recent bids, one submitted by Riverside Contracting, Inc., the other from Treasure State, Inc., came in at approximately $8.8 million and $11.2 million respectively. Of the nearly $10.5 million in available funding, roughly $6.1 is budgeted for construction.

The roadwork, which includes seven new turn lanes, a new traffic signal, pedestrian infrastructure and new buses, among other components, has been regarded as a top community priority. Commissioners from both Madison and Gallatin counties have acknowledged the importance of launching the project but say the crux is coming up with additional funds.

“When this all started, we made a very firm commitment saying ‘yeah, we’ll go out for this bid. We’ll go out for the grant. But we’re not putting a dime into the project,’” said Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner. “So, we’re kind of having that as a backdrop. But on the other hand, things have changed. We’re in a very different world now than we were three years ago. I think we’re open to finding money to commit some more.”

Gallatin County is looking to MDT as a potential fourth funding partner. According to county staff, MDT has said it could contribute $1.4 million to help close the gap, though the county is continuing verbal negotiations to see if the state department could put more on the table.

If MDT contributed $1.4 million, the counties and the resort tax district would be left to divvy up the remaining $1.7 million, a third of which the resort tax district committed to.

If MDT contributed $2.1 million, county commissioners said, the remaining funding partners would be left to split $1 million. At a meeting on Tuesday, the Gallatin County Commission made a soft commitment of $333,333, or a third of the hypothetical $1 million. The Gallatin County Commission will revisit the topic at a meeting on Monday, where commissioners hope to have a firm commitment from MDT so they can approve their own contribution.

Jim Heckler, who represents Big Sky on the Madison County Commission, said he was only made aware of the funding deficit this week.

“There’s been very little discussion on our part other than saying where could we possibly find that money,” Heckler told EBS on Wednesday.

Though a current proposal would have Madison and Gallatin counties as well as the resort tax district split the deficit three ways after applying MDT’s contribution, Gallatin County Commissioners acknowledged during their Tuesday meeting that only 11 percent of the planned work is in Madison County. The commissioners, as well as Heckler, also noted that the entire Montana Highway 64, along which most of the work is planned, is used to access the Big Sky portion of Madison County, regardless of where the construction is taking place.

“We fully recognize the contribution of property taxes coming out of Big Sky and into Madison County,” Heckler said. “We need time to determine what funding sources and how much can be put towards closing the gap on the TIGER grant project.”

One consideration Heckler floated is that while the counties and the resort tax district may need to make a funding commitment now, they may have several months or even years until they are actually called upon for the cash when the grant funding has been exhausted.

“There’s a difference between commitment and cash flow,” he said.

Indeed, when the BSRAD board unanimously approved additional funding at its Wednesday meeting, it did not identify from where it would draw the money. Blechta said the board will evaluate its options when their funding is needed.

“The goal for us I think today was really to show the other partners that we are committed and we will find a way to make this happen so that our community can get the TIGER grant successfully completed as we all would love to see that finished,” Blechta said.

Skinner said his goal is to have a “soft agreement” between all parties by the April 6 joint county commission meeting.

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