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Federal highway bill has $1.3 billion for North Dakota, provides certainty for planners

BISMARCK - A long-term highway bill passed by Congress this week contains more than $1.3 billion for North Dakota and gives the green light to more than 100 transportation projects that were at risk of going unfunded, officials said Friday.

BISMARCK – A long-term highway bill passed by Congress this week contains more than $1.3 billion for North Dakota and gives the green light to more than 100 transportation projects that were at risk of going unfunded, officials said Friday.

The House and Senate both voted Thursday to pass the bipartisan Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which authorizes $305 billion in spending over the next five years and streamlines the project approval process to reduce delays.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the bill boosts federal highway funding to North Dakota to an average of about $263 million annually – about $23 million over the current level – and also provides $76 million for transit projects over the five-year period.

“These investments will create new jobs, provide a sustained boost to our nation’s economy and help keep America and North Dakota competitive in the global marketplace,” he said in a statement.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation is “very excited” about the bill, having operated since 2005 on short-term funding extensions and continuing resolutions passed by Congress, said Steve Salwei, transportation programs director.

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“That really made it difficult for us to plan for long-term projects,” he said, adding about $90 million worth of work was delayed this past year because federal funding wasn’t there when needed.

The long-term bill will allow the DOT to move forward with most of the 100-plus projects in its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program for 2016, including highway reconstruction, bridge replacements and preventative maintenance, Salwei said.

The timing of the bill’s passage also was fortunate because the DOT had scheduled a Dec. 16 bid opening that now should be able to proceed, he said.

Population gains and increased truck traffic related to the oil boom have put a strain on the state’s highways. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., pointed to a recent study by the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute that found 54 percent of roads in western North Dakota needed improvements this year such as widening, reconstruction and other maintenance.

“This long-term bipartisan bill makes needed investments to repair and expand North Dakota’s roads and bridges so families can get their kids to school safely and workers can securely travel to and do their jobs,” she said in a statement.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican, noted the bill also contains $70 million in offsets which, when combined with interest accrued on the Highway Trust Fund, will keep it solvent through fiscal year 2020. Salwei said that assures states will be reimbursed by the Federal Highway Administration in a timely manner.

Cramer said the long-term certainty the bill provides to local and state highway departments “is especially important for cold-weather states like North Dakota with short construction seasons.”

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