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Kristen Daum, Published October 11 2009

North Dakota worried about federal road funds

North Dakota transportation officials said they’re uneasy about the future of the state’s federal highway funding in the absence of an active congressional bill.

The federal highway bill received a 30-day extension after it expired Sept. 30. Congress is still discussing the next bill, which passed a House committee vote but remains far from a floor vote any time soon.

Congress approves the federal highway bill every six years – which sets aside funds to go toward state transportation departments and help pay for highway construction projects, said Dave Leftwich, transportation programs director at the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

In North Dakota, the absence of a current federal highway bill means planning for long-term projects will continue – but the projects remain tentative, at best.

“We don’t know exactly what kind of funding we have from the federal aid side of things,” said Kevin Gorder, Fargo-area district engineer for NDDOT. “In North Dakota, we are heavily dependent on federal aid, so it’s all pending funding and pending a good highway bill that provides the money that we have projected.”

The Main Avenue reconstruction in West Fargo is just one state-led project that would be affected by a lack of funding.

The $12 million reconstruction is set to occur in three phases, the first of which should wrap up by the end of the month.

The next two phases are slated for 2012 and 2015 and, like other state projects, are heavily dependent on federal funding provided through a highway bill, Gorder said.

“If they decide to go a different route with federal aid, then we have some challenges trying to figure out how we maintain our state system,” Gorder said. “That’s a very real, real concern.”

North Dakota received $230 million toward highway construction last year, said Leftwich of NDDOT.

Leftwich said one of the problems facing Congress is how to pay for continued extensions of the previous highway bill until the next one is passed.

Congress decided to spend out all the surplus money available in its federal highway distribution fund when the previous highway bill was passed six years ago – with the assumption that money collected through the national gas tax would build it back up, Leftwich said.

However, during the recession, people were driving less, so fewer dollars were collected from the gas tax during the past six years, he said.

“They’ve got enough coming in now to fund it at about a two-third level of what it was,” Leftwich said of the distribution fund, which is being used to extend funding under the previous bill. “So now they have to find some other income.”

There’s also concern among states that they’ll receive billions of fewer dollars than they might have, because of how Congress issued the extension, said Tony Dorsey, spokesman for the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials, a lobbying group based in Washington, D.C.

“States need certainty, because many of these projects affected are multi-year projects,” Dorsey said. “They need a reliable source of revenue to get the job done. Not having an extension, not having a six-year bill makes it very difficult.”

Since the next highway bill remains in congressional limbo, Leftwich said it’s too soon to know how future funding for North Dakota might be affected.

Meanwhile, planning for projects will continue until the next bill is passed and the state knows what amount of funding it will have, Leftwich said.

“The day-to-day activity just moves on, we keep moving on,” he said. “Because of the importance of infrastructure in the country, Congress has always come through and provided funding, and we’re confident they’ll come through. … Whenever we get money from Congress, we’ll adjust accordingly.”