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Transportation chief discusses rural needs, Wants more movement

WEST FARGO — Rail reliability issues have been a concern for farmers in the region trying to ship out 2013 crop grain and ship in fertilizer to get 2014 crops planted. But road infrastructure took center stage in a meeting on April 24 in West Fargo featuring U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he wants to pass a five- or six-year bill to help state and local governments make long-term plans. Hoeven wants to use money from potential energy developments on federal lands — onshore and off-shore. Paul Diederich, president of Industrial Builders Inc., of Fargo, urged Hoeven to consider adding a user fee to help pay for highway funding as part of an “all-of-the-above” strategy for funding roads. Foxx said the gasoline tax is still bringing in revenue, but other sources are needed.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said America owns about $123 trillion in oil and gas — even if all of it is not easily accessible — that could be used for transportation infrastructure development. Cramer also wants to use corporate earnings located overseas, to help pay for highways.

Costing our children

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said delayed investment “costs our children,” and brings uncertainty that slows growth.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, a Republican, told Foxx that the federal government used to account for 75 percent of North Dakota highway financing and now accounts for 25 percent.

Before the meeting, Heitkamp told Agweek that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway officials have reported 23 of the promised 52 added trainloads of critically needed fertilizer trains will be on their way to the Upper Midwest in the next six weeks. The railway has promised to take measures to speed up turnaround times for locomotives carrying fertilizer.

“We’re seeing progress in the right direction,” but the senators have asked the Surface Transportation Board to monitor the situation, and possibly step in to require shipment, as has the Canadian government.

More efficient rail

Grant Levi, North Dakota Department of Transportation director, told Foxx that North Dakota agricultural commodities need to move year-round. Levi said roadways are soft in the spring when the frost comes out of the ground, and the state has never had the resources to firm them up.

Levi said a farmer who would haul 850 bushels of grain in a typical semi-trailer load pays about 47 cents per bushel for a 100-mile trip. The load restrictions reduce the capacity by 20 percent, adding about 12 cents per bushel to the cost. He said that ends up costing the consumer, which is one reason the federal government should invest.

Denver Tolliver, director of the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute in Fargo, said regional railroads need updating. He said one 286,000-pound rail car can handle the equivalent of four semi-trailer tractor trucks. He said the federal government should have a program to upgrade the regional lines.

North Dakota has a low-interest loan program, but the federal government needs to step in, Tolliver said. Foxx said the administration is looking at a $10 billion, four-year program, targeted at moving freight.

Foxx said the administration wants to meet the transportation needs of the country. The country will need to haul another 14 billion tons of freight per year to keep up with the rising population.