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Lawmakers are asked to increase funds for roads, transit

FARGO -- North Dakota's roads are deteriorating, but so is the amount of money in the state's budget dedicated to helping improve them.

Projections show an estimated $70 million funding shortfall for transportation needs.

North Dakota needs to dedicate more money to improving roads and increasing transit options, officials said Thursday at an interim legislative Transportation Committee's meeting in Fargo.

A study of county roads rated one-third as being poor, or showing significant wear throughout. Some counties are reverting back to gravel roads because they're cheaper, said Jon Mielke of the Urban Great Plains Transportation Institute's Bismarck office.

Also, transit needs continue to grow as the state's population ages and needs access to services, Mielke said.

Figuring out how to pay for the improvements will be the challenge.

The state's current needs for transportation infrastructure and transit are $553 million, according to Mielke.

Funding for 2007 was an estimated $314 million. How-ever, due to inflation, the 2008 buying power is about $270 million, or half of the state's needs.

In addition, a $3.3 billion deficit is predicted for the federal highway trust fund in fiscal year 2009, meaning North Dakota faces an estimated $70 million funding cut, Mielke said Thursday.

"If you look at the system this year, people are saying, 'The roads aren't so bad. It's not that critical,' " Mielke said. "But the problem is, the more you delay, the greater the cost of that delayed maintenance ... it gets out of hand real fast."

Several counties had issues on their June ballots related to roads, Mielke said.

Recent estimates show 41,000 North Dakotans don't have access to a personal vehicle. More transit options could connect this potential work force with the state's worker shortage, Mielke said.

One way to get more money is dedicating more of the motor vehicle excise tax to transportation, said Russ Hanson, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of North Dakota.

Currently, 10 percent of this tax revenue goes to transportation.

The remaining money goes in the state's general fund.

Allocating all of the tax could mean up to $140 million more per biennium for transportation, said Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield.

He believes lawmakers will push for more of the tax to be directed to transportation during the 2009 session.

Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, called the state's transportation situation "extremely concerning."

"The infrastructure of our state is deteriorating and to continue to grow and attract additional businesses, additional workers, our infra-structure needs to be sound," she said.

The Forum and The Dickinson Press are both owned by Forum Communications Co.