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Road woes: North Dakota counties grapple with repair costs

Bob Dolan grades Walsh County Road 2 near the Red River east of Grafton, ND, Wednesday. Herald photo by Eric Hylden

Faced with the ever-increasing cost of maintaining roads and stagnant or decreasing revenues, counties throughout the region are facing some tough choices.

Some are going so far as to stop spending money, allowing some paved roads to fall into constant state of disrepair, a phenomenon that has been called a rebirth of gravel roads.

Last month, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis published a special report, "A hard road," in its quarterly magazine, the Fedgazette, that listed North Dakota's Stutsman County as an example.

After county voters rejected a proposal in 2008 to raise property taxes to fund a $21 million road restoration project, county commissioners decided to convert more than 100 miles of paved road to gravel over the next five to 10 years, according to the report.

With a $750,000 annual road budget and the cost of rebuilding roads now estimated at more than $500,000 per mile, the county couldn't keep up.

Counties in northeastern North Dakota haven't yet gone to that extreme. But they are searching for ways to increase road maintenance revenue or cut costs. And they're at the mercy of the federal government, which appropriates money to state governments for distribution to cities, counties and townships for road projects.

In 2008, voters in Walsh and Nelson counties approved special 10-mill measures to increase property taxes to help maintain roads.

"That was kind of surprising," Nelson County Auditor Jack Davidson said. In the primary election just five months earlier, voters rejected a proposal for the county to adopt home rule. Had home rule been approved, the county wanted to initiate a county sales tax.

The 10-mill increase, which amounts to about $134,350 annually, more than doubled the county's farm-to-market road budget, which had been about $100,000 annually in 2008.

In Walsh County, that 10-mill increase raises about $330,000 annually. In addition, Walsh County developed a three-tier priority system for maintaining roads.

County paved roads and gravel roads that provided access to homes on school bus routes have higher priority. It also takes into account the 500 bridges in Walsh County.

The county closed five gravel roads in the county in 2009, according to highway superintendent Sharon Lipsh.

"Walsh County has done an excellent job of laying out what their main routes are, what their secondary routes are," said Terry Traynor, assistant director of the North Dakota Association of Counties. "They're trying to preserve what they have."

Still, counties throughout the region are waiting for state and federal funding before starting or completing millions of dollars worth of local projects.

"We've got a $2.3 million project we're trying to find funds for," Lipsh said.

Grand Forks County is hoping for $955,000 in federal funding for a chip-seal project that includes all paved roads north of U.S. Highway 2, amounting to nearly 75 miles, according to county highway engineer Richard Onstad.

About 50 percent of the North Dakota Department of Transportation's road construction funds come from the federal government, according to Scott Zainhofsky, planning and programming engineer with NDDOT.

"Right now, we don't know what 2011 funding is going to look like for us," he said.

The last federal highway funding bill passed by Congress expired in September. Since, highway funds have trickled out of Washington through of series of temporary allotments.

"Federal funding is flexible enough that a fair portion can be used on any federal aid roadway in the state," Zainhofsky said. "That goes all the way down to the county level. County level collector routes are eligible, too."

States did receive a windfall through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which pumped hundreds of millions of dollars last year into road and bridge projects.

North Dakota received $170 million, with $13 million going to county governments. Minnesota received $474 million.

Even with that one-time financial infusion, states remain woefully behind in the pace in road maintenance and construction. State officials estimate that one-third of county roads in the state are deficient.

A 2008 North Dakota State University study found an additional $254 million per year is needed simply to maintain existing roads and bridges, with no increases in capacity.

A recent federal study indicated that it would take an increase of 50 percent to 100 percent in funding to maintain the nation's highway system.

NDDOT road construction and maintenance funds are doled out to cities, counties and townships according to a formula established by the state Legislature. Under the formula, 75 percent of the highway tax distribution fund goes to NDDOT, while the remaining 25 percent goes to the state's 13 largest cities, counties and townships.

It is funded through fuel taxes and a percentage of vehicle registration fees.

In fiscal year 2010, which started July 1, 2009, North Dakota counties were to receive an estimated $41 million from the state's highway tax distribution fund, while townships were to get $5.2 million.

The state Legislature approved a one-time appropriation in 2009 of $34 million for road projects throughout the state. Fuel tax revenues have been stagnant, however, in recent years. That's partly because of higher-mileage vehicles and with people driving fewer miles.

North Dakota's fuel tax revenues might be dropping, if not for an increase in diesel fuel taxes as the result of higher prices and an increase in traffic, especially in the Bakken Formation oil patch of western North Dakota.

While county road and highway departments await additional funding for road projects this year, Onstad said Grand Forks County's county road system actually is in good shape.

The $955,000 project is for chip-sealing all county blacktopped roads -- 70 to 75 miles of roads -- in the northern half of the county, essentially everything north of Highway 2, according to Onstad.

It's a cycle in the northern and southern half of the county that's repeated every five to six years, he said.

"We hope next year to do the southern half," he said. "Everything's lined up, ready to go. We're just waiting for money."

Not every county is experiencing that kind of fortune.

In Traill County, for example, commissioners need NDDOT's participation in a $2 million project to repave County Road 23, east of Hatton, N.D.

County Road 10 near Buxton, N.D., could be another victim, although an area farmer has offered to pay a share of the cost. County officials were checking to see if that's allowed.

Some counties have proposed turning several miles of paved roads over to NDDOT, or negotiating for some kind of a deal with the state. But Zainhofsky said that rarely happens.

For one thing, the Legislature sets a limit -- 7 percent of the total miles of roadway in the state -- that can be on the state system, he said. That number fluctuates yearly, as townships abandon miles or roads or cities add miles of pavement to their road systems.

Currently, the state has 7,467 miles on its system. That's about 80 miles short of the limit.

"We don't want to get too close to that limit because it does change," he said.

The state has taken over roads in the past.

The most recent example occurred in 2005 in Benson County, where a portion of old U.S. 281 north of Minnewaukan has been flooded by the growing Devils Lake. In that case, the federal highway was moved to a county road to the west, farther away from the lake.

The county assumed the flooded highway, which can be used locally at least part of the time.

Dozens of county and township roads have been submerged in the Devils Lake Basin, the result of a 17-year flood. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to keep main roads safe.

While scores of miles of county and township roads likely will be under water for the foreseeable future, the long-term forecast for the total number of paved roads in the state is muddy, at best.

"Right now, there are no plans to go back to gravel on the state system," Zainhovsky said. "Will the number of paved roads be reduced in the future? It's a difficult question to answer. It depends on how far out you go, and what the policymakers decide. It's really anybody's guess."