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Officials say money isn't there for road, bridge maintenance in ND over next 20 years

Nick Weiss, an engineering intern with Gowan Construction, spreads grass seed along the side of Walsh County Road 2 east of Grafton Thursday, July 27. The Construction company is restoring a section of the road that was sliding into the Red River. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS — Walsh County needs nearly $30 million in road investments and maintenance for the 2017-18 biennium, according to a draft study from North Dakota State University researchers.

This year, Sharon Lipsh's budget for the entire Walsh County Highway Department inches just above $3.8 million. After paying salaries, gas costs and other expenses, the highway superintendent expects road projects and maintenance will receive about $1.6 million—or about 5 percent of what the NDSU study suggests it needs.

"I think a lot of these counties are faced with these declining budgets," she said. "We won't have a road project for probably two or three years because we don't have enough money to do one."

Walsh County isn't the only government entity facing these issues. The draft report put together by the NDSU Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute shows infrastructure needs for roads and bridges in North Dakota cities, townships and all 53 counties should equal $8.8 billion over the next 20 years for replacement, rehabilitation and maintenance projects.

For the 2017-18 biennium alone, counties would need to spend nearly $1.1 billion to maintain their bridges and roads.

Cities—Bismarck, Devils Lake, Dickinson, Fargo, Grafton, Grand Forks and Jamestown—will need $1.25 billion in bridge and road investments over the next 20 years. About $181.9 million would be needed in the 2017-18 biennium.

The figures do not take into account inflation or an increase in construction costs, so it's possible those costs could go up. But a drop in state revenues means most of those projects likely won't happen.

"It's going to be back to pre-oil conditions because we don't have any oil money," said Grand Forks County Engineer Nick West. "It's back to business as usual and the glory days are over."

What changed?

The $3.8 million is a typical budget year for Walsh County, though it received significantly more money from the state last year after the 2015 Legislature approved a $1.1 billion surge fund.

That was possible in large part due to oil revenues. Walsh County saw its budget jump to $11.7 million because of the surge fund, $9.8 million of which went to road projects.

But a crash in oil prices meant further funding from the state wouldn't be available for local governments. The North Dakota Department of Transportation is set to spend $465 million on road projects this year, less than the $580 million spent last year and significantly down from the $820 million spent each year in 2013 and 2014.

The Upper Great Plains study has constantly shown the infrastructure needs for DOT projects are about $450 million over budget for each biennium, said Steve Salwei, the DOT's director of transportation programs.

"There are needs across the state, needs that are exceeding the revenues coming into the state," he said.

The DOT predicts it will spend $290 million on projects in 2018, returning to 2008 expenditures.

About 700 bridges under the care of North Dakota counties and townships are eligible for rehabilitation or replacement in the next 20 years, according to the study. That means counties would have to spend $429.58 million in that time frame to meet infrastructure needs.

In theory, Walsh County should spend $35.9 million to replace 63 bridges over the next two decades, but Lipsh said that's not going to happen.

The county is asking townships to go over roads and bridges to determine which are critical for transportation and if any can be downgraded to low maintenance or closed.

"We all know there is limited funds," Lipsh said. "We all know we can't continue to maintain the road system that we have today."

No change

To the south, Traill County also has reviewed which bridges and roads should be priorities. The report suggests 53 bridges should be replaced or rehabilitated for $45.72 million.

The county is working on its budget for 2018, but prioritizing can be difficult, said Traill County Commission Chairman Kendall Nesvig.

"Everybody wants their roads kept up and their bridges kept up, but there just isn't enough money to go around," he said.

One example of a bridge staying closed due to lack of funds is the Nielsville Bridge near Cummings, N.D., about 30 miles south of Grand Forks. The bridge was closed in September 2015 after a large hole formed in the deck. The bridge that crosses the Red River is awaiting funding on the North Dakota side—Minnesota has enough money to pay for its half of the $11.7 million project.

Without federal or state funding, Traill County would spend most, if not all, of its budget on the bridge, officials there have said. The county co-authored an application for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant, but was turned down last year. It is awaiting word from the U.S. Department of Transportation on this year's round.

The closest bridges are 7 miles away and Nesvig believes it is the only bridge that crosses the Red River that has been closed in "awhile."

Leaders in Traill County met with NDDOT officials last year to ask for funds, but were told there is no money to give, especially in the wake of budget cuts.

Nesvig suggested the federal government could increase its fuel tax, which is 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel. The last time it was increased was in 1993.

There have been talks about raising the tax, but nothing has come to fruition. Nesvig noted the U.S. consumed 143 billion gallons of gasoline and 40 billion gallons of diesel last year.

"If we could manage to get that done and just, say, raise it a nickel, we could generate about $9 billion a year that could be put back into infrastructure," he said.

'We don't have the dollars'

West feels Grand Forks County is doing well compared to others, mostly due to a large tax base and more people.

"Grand Forks County hasn't done any expansion work for decades," he said. "Everything we do is maintenance."

With 7.9 mills, the highway tax and federal aid, Grand Forks County's highway department received about $5.4 million in revenue for this year's budget. That's larger than Walsh County's revenue, which levies 40 mills.

In theory, Grand Forks should replace 57 bridges for $26.24 million in the next 20 years and needs about $20.4 million in maintenance, according to the Upper Great Plains study.

Grand Forks did receive $9.5 million from the surge fund for the 2015-16 biennium.

"Right now, after spending all of the money from the state, we are probably in the best shape we have been in for decades," he said. "Without that, I feel that we just slowly go backwards."

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