MINOT — Wear and tear on North Dakota highways is expected. Some roadways are heavily traveled, often by heavy vehicles that increase general wear. Winters are tough on roadways too. Ice that expands in fissures and cracks can cause significant damage to paved surfaces. So too can the blades of necessary snow removal equipment.
Repairs and replacement of roadways is expensive. Very expensive. Therein lies a bulging challenge for the North Dakota Department of Transportation. What work is necessary and how do you pay for it?
Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla, has concerns about maintenance and improvements of roadways in the state. He contends that some current practices may be doing more harm than good to paved surfaces and says the increasing costs of maintaining and building highways in the state is more than the budget can bear. Perhaps a lot more.
The DOT revealed some very startling statistics related to future costs at a funding symposium on transportation held earlier this year. The DOT presented a document revealing that $26.6 billion would be needed to maintain current levels of service in the state over the next 20 years. The amount would create a $14.6 billion deficit based on today's revenue coming into the DOT.
"It's a big number. No question about it," said Tom Sorel, NDDOT director.
Clearly, the DOT will have some hard choices to make in the future and additional revenue sources will be explored. In addition to maintaining roads and bridges, the DOT is responsible for such things as snow removal, motor vehicle registration and driver's licenses.
A publication distributed by the DOT at the symposium said the agency is "currently in a preservation mode," just trying to preserve the state's existing transportation system. However, said the DOT, "we are losing ground and our system is deteriorating faster than we have resources to preserve it."
"What we mean by that is that we've got to keep up with needs today," said Sorel. "Our roads and bridges, we can't let that slip. We need to preserve and protect what we have. When you look at our funding there's not a lot of additional capacity. We need to keep what we have. That's kind of our goal."
The department's main source of funding is state fuel taxes and vehicle fees. Those fees have remained constant since 2005 while expenditures have risen considerably. The cost of asphalt surfacing of roadways has increased dramatically from what it was a few years ago and the rise continues.
If the DOT is to see an increase in revenue to help defray increased costs, a likely source would be an increase in the motor fuel tax paid by motorists at the pump. Currently the state's motor fuel tax is 23-cents per gallon. That equates to about $170 million per year. Estimates are that a 1-cent increase in the fuel tax would generate about $8 million more in yearly revenue for the DOT, an amount that would help but not nearly enough to meet apparent future expenditures. It also may not prove very palatable for state residents already concerned about the cost of gasoline.
All states assess a fuel tax. North Dakota's 23 cents per gallon fuel tax currently rates 35th in the nation. Minnesota's fuel tax is 29 cents per gallon, South Dakota 30 cents and Montana 32 cents.
Other potential revenue sources for the DOT could be to receive a portion of state sales tax, taxes on vehicle sales, increased property taxes, increased vehicle registration fees and even a wheelage tax, a flat rate fee levied on vehicles registered in a county. Undoubtedly the state Legislature will have to confront the issue when it convenes again in 2019.
"I've met with 50 or 60 legislators. They just want information on what our needs are and what kind of approaches we need and identify our long term funding gap," said Sorel. "My job is to give them information. There's a lot of transportation groups out there involved in this dialog as well."
Nelson claims some of the state's roadways are deteriorating at a much faster rate than they should. He points a finger at the practice of cutting rumble strips into the middle of paved roadways.
"Water gets in there and has no place to go. Ice starts forming and the road blows out," said Nelson. "It's happening all over the state. It looks to me like this process is going to take at least a decade off the life of the highway."
Nelson cites Highway 66 that runs through Rolette as an example of broken roadway due to center rumble strips. The road, he says, is in good shape but the center is starting to break out where the rumble strips are cut.
According to Nelson the DOT spends about $6-million a year cutting centerline rumble strips on state highways.
"It's an awfully expensive lesson," remarked Nelson. "Highway 66 through Rolette should have been good for years. With this, I don't think it is. The road replacement cycle is years earlier than expected and there's just not the money to do this. It's a nice idea, but unless we can come up with something the road can handle I just don't see how we can continue doing it."
Sorel says he's aware of Nelson's concerns and responds that the center-cut rumble strips do not deteriorate the life of pavement. He adds, "They are there for a reason. They do save lives. I'm a big safety advocate. I know those things work."
Sorel took over as NDDOT director last August. He made the move from Minnesota where he spent about five years in that state's DOT. Even though he inherited an agency facing a huge budget deficit in the coming years, he is optimistic about the future of the DOT in North Dakota.
"I think people are beginning to understand the role transportation plays in the economy and quality of life," remarked Sorel.
"There's all kinds of data to show the cost of business has gone up from a contractor's perspective," said Sorel. "Income isn't keeping up with those costs. We can't buy as much as we used to be able to."
According to the DOT asphalt surfacing that cost $500,000 per mile in 2005 increased to 1.1-million per mile by 2016. Those are the kind of numbers that have put the DOT in "preservation mode."
Without an increase in revenue the DOT says consequences may include narrower and rougher roadways, more load restrictions, longer lines to renew driver's licenses, closure of more rest areas, more gravel shoulders, roads without shoulders and longer delays in registering vehicles and clearing snow.