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Locals plug more money for roads, bridges

BISMARCK -- Even before the blizzards, even before the flooding, a quarter of North Dakota's roads were in danger of falling apart and desperately in need of work costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, county officials said Wednesday.

Quoting a national study, the local officials said North Dakota's spending on roads, bridges and transit is not keeping pace with inflation and deterioration. They said it will only get worse without a change in spending policy, in part because it is too dependent on federal funds that are in danger of drying up.

The $170 million in federal stimulus money due to the state for transportation projects is not enough to turn that around, nor can it be used for routine maintenance, said Mark Johnson, executive director of the North Dakota Association of Counties. It has to be used for projects that were already designed and ready for construction.

FEMA flood recovery funds are not the answer either, said Cass County Engineer Keith Berndt.

"FEMA is not a 100 percent bailout and many repairs are not covered," he said. The national highway trust fund will soon run out of money, Berndt said.

County officials and other groups wearing lapel stickers and championing more highway funding descended on the Capitol Wednesday to appeal for more state funds, including restoration of a proposal Gov. John Hoeven put in his executive budget in December that called for a $120 million infusion into highways from the state's billion-dollar general fund surplus. That's disappeared during House Appropriations Committee deliberations, Berndt and Johnson said.

"The governor gave us a strong package," Johnson said. "It seems to have vanished on its way to the House."

It was in the Transportation Department's budget bill, Senate Bill 2012, he said. The full House has not acted on the bill and when it does, it is expected the bill will end up in a conference committee for Senate-House negotiations.

The national study that counties released Wednesday was done by TRIP, a national transportation research group.

It said the $170 million in federal stimulus funds due to come into the state represents only a "welcome down payment" on the state's road needs. The amount needed to merely maintain state and local roads and bridges is $254 million per year greater than the amount of funding available.

TRIP said a quarter of the state's roads and bridges are deficient, with 5 percent in poor condition and another 20 percent in mediocre condition. Some 22 percent of the state's bridges before the flooding were deficient, with 16 percent of those 20 feet or longer structurally deficient.

Frank Moretti of TRIP said the state has been able to keep deteriorating roads from getting worse, that has done little except "buy time" until a significant infusion is made.