WEST FARGO – North Dakota communities can’t plan for long-term infrastructure demands without the security of having a federal highway bill in place, local and state leaders testified today before a U.S. Senate Budget Committee field hearing here.
North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, the committee’s chairman, convened the hearing to hear discuss the challenges cities and industry leaders face in the absence of a multi-year transportation bill.
The last such bill expired in September 2009. Since then, Congress has continued the funding through nine short-term extensions, which North Dakota’s bipartisan delegation says are ineffective in meeting the state’s needs.
The most recent extension was passed last week and will secure transportation aid into June, as the House and Senate again try to reach a compromise on a reauthorization bill.
Francis Ziegler, director of North Dakota’s Department of Transportation, said Thursday his office can’t plan past the funding provided in each of the extensions, a limitation that inherently stalls projects statewide until more dollars comes through.
Those delays end up being more expensive, since construction costs rise with inflation and more work ends up being needed to fix increasingly deteriorated roads and bridges.
“When the highway bill doesn’t last long, it’s very hard to be certain the project you’re developing is going to be built,” Ziegler said, adding that federal dollars make up about 51 percent of the available annual funding for state and local road projects.
Western North Dakota’s Oil Patch experiences some of the greatest demand for infrastructure improvements, because of the heavy truck traffic that’s overburdened roadways there – but communities miles away from the nearest oil rig are also reeling from the boom’s effects.
Carrington Mayor Don Frye said his town in central North Dakota sees sometimes hundreds of semi-trucks a day that come and go from the Patch and put a drain on local roads.
The increased traffic also makes for more dangerous – and potentially deadly – conditions, as vehicles try to pass semi-trucks on roads that weren’t build for the crowded and busy conditions, Frye said.
“Every city in North Dakota in some manner is tied to a federal or state highway,” Frye said. “These highways are used to move people, goods and services throughout our state and region. … The lack of a multi-year transportation bill places all of these uses in serious jeopardy.”
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker also expressed the needs of state’s largest city, where major thoroughfares are in dire need of repair.
For instance, Main Avenue from 25th Street to the Red River is long overdue for a full reconstruction – but the $25 million project and other similar overhauls can’t be done without federal aid, Walaker said.
Congress’ continual extensions, as opposed to a multi-year funding bill, are a nightmare for local cities, which rely on the funding stream for proper planning, Walaker said.
“That’s absolutely asinine for anybody trying to plan for infrastructure improvements,” he said of the temporary extensions.
The Senate has approved a reauthorization bill, which would secure funding for about the next 18 months. That bill passed with a rare majority of 74 votes, including support from Conrad and Republican Sen. John Hoeven.
Conrad said the legislation would guarantee $550 million for North Dakota roads, bridges and transit.
The House has crafted its own reauthorization bill, which proposes a five-year funding plan paid for through a more sustainable source of revenue: increased energy development on federal lands.
However, that legislation hasn’t yet gained a majority in that chamber, due to various hang-ups among House members.
North Dakota Republican Rep. Rick Berg says he supports the Senate bill, but favors a more long-term solution such as the House’s alternative.