A representative of a group trying to improve transportation infrastructure and stimulate trade in a 10-state region including Montana said during a meeting of the Highway 2 Association in Havre Wednesday that a key to improving the economy and sustaining rural communities is investing in highways.
But, Joe Kiely of Limon, Colo., vice president of operations for the Ports-to-Plains Alliance said, that will take effort and money from local groups as well as state and federal leaders.
He said Montana needs to remember that U. S. Highway 2 — along with north-south routes and the U. S.-Canadian border — is a key to successful Montana trade and economic development.
“Please understand that your second-largest trading partner along this corridor is not south of you, it is east of you. And that’s what makes Highway 2 something that is important to you in the future, ” Kiely said.
The Highway 2 Association, which has as a prime goal upgrading Highway 2 to four lanes across the state, has been working closely with Ports-to-Plains for about five years. Ports to Plains, formed nearly 15 years ago, advocates improving transportation in the corridor from Texas to Alberta “to promote economic security and prosperity throughout North America's energy and agricultural heartland. ”
The group focuses on a 10-state region — along with Montana, the states are Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota — and the Canadian province of Alberta.
Kiely said his group, which has a $600,000 annual budget — much of which goes to lobby Congress — does not have an official Montana member at this time, and wants to sign on the supporters of expanding Highway 2. That however, comes with a price — he said the annual membership dues are $10,000. Members can pay more if they wish, Kiely added. The city of Lubbock, Texas, pays $125,000 a year.
Trade is high and increasing
He said the trade along the corridor — primarily on the 10-state region’s focus on agriculture and traditional and alternative energy — is immense. Because it directly affects Montana, that puts the state in as a stakeholder, he said.
Montana has high, growing international trade, with products originating in the state exported to Mexico totaling $9.1 million in 2010. That was a 680 percent increase from 2004’s total of $1.4 million exported to Mexico, he said.
Montana’s imports from Mexico have grown — from $2.9 million in 2004 to $6.6 million in 2010, a 229 percent increase.
The exports to Alberta have increased as well. Montana exports to the province grew from $108 million in 2004 to $209 million in 2010, a 217 percent increase.
The imports from Alberta have gone the other way, down from $490 million in 2004 to $353 million in 2010.
Havre businessman Ron Harmon said one factor that could be a cause for the decrease is the higher value of the Canadian dollar, which reduces the attractiveness of importing from Canada.
But, Kiely said, the biggest trade in the Ports-to-Plains region is between the states.
For Montana, he said, its largest trading partner is Wyoming — with $1.22 million in trade in 2010 — but the second largest is North Dakota, with $208 million in 2010. Third was South Dakota, with $141 million in 2010.
State and federal regulation, funding
Kiely said one focus has to be on working with the government to improve work on improving infrastructure and on international trade. Having to wait six or seven years for studies to be done before highway improvements can be made or increasing delays to transport merchandise into Canada stifles trade, doesn’t improve it, he said.
Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, said she has heard concerns that the Ports-to-Plains organization is trying to make a North American Union, and is trying to create a corridor to facilitate the North American Free Trade Agreement. She asked for confirmation that that is not Ports-to-Plains’ goal.
Kiely and Bob Sivertsen, president of the Highway 2 Association, said that idea, which began to be circulated some five or six years ago, is not true.
“We don’t advocate open borders, ” Kiely said. “We advocate efficient borders. ”
Kiely also answered a question from Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre.
She asked what the state could do to improve its image. Montana is seen as an over-regulated state, not friendly to business, Warburton said.
Kiely said every state has issues — one of his earlier examples was a permitting requirement by Montana that killed a Billings’ business chance of making $2 billion in exports to Alberta — but he does not think Montana is one of the worst. He said in the issue of permitting the mega-loads traveling from the West Coast up to Alberta, Montana was fairly easy for the businesses to work with.
“I have felt like the Montana Department of Transportation did a far better job than Idaho did, ” he said.
He said a main issue, in this time of anti-earmark rhetoric and attempts to cut the federal deficit, a key issue is finding funding.
One issue that has changed is looking at economic impacts in highway work. The first time the federal government required that to be part of studies was in 2005.
Kiely cited a study on proposed work between Havre and Fort Belknap early last decade as an example — because that study looked only at past history and projections, rather than potential economic impacts, the work now being done is on an improved two-lane configuration rather than a four-lane configuration.
U. S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said this morning that he knows how important highway infrastructure is to facilitating trade with Canada and supporting jobs in Montana, and he is especially sensitive to rural road safety and freight transportation. It also is important to recognize that the immediate need to cut the mounting budget deficit will undoubtedly shape the transportation debate moving forward, he added.
Baucus said he also is focusing on improving trade over the Canadian border,.
“Plain and simple, more trade along the northern border means more jobs in Montana, and that’s our number one priority, ” he said. “I’ll continue to do everything I can to make sure Montanans have all the tools and access they need to sell our world-class goods around the globe and create jobs here at home. ”
Baucus said he plans to reintroduce a bill this year that will create a pilot program to upgrade three ports on the Canadian border to commercial, 24-hour status, which would tie into efforts to upgrade the port of Wild Horse.
That effort is a focus of Ports-to-Plains.