Murphy’s Law #63

August 27, 2018

Corn was there in force. So were the Grain Growers, Canola, Stockmen, Sugar Beets, the North Dakota Association of Counties, the Township Officers Assoc, the Soy Transportation Coalition the Soybean Growers and others. Hosted by the North Dakota Soybean Council, it was called the Rural Transportation Summit with featured speakers such as Tom Sorel, the director of ND Department of Transportation (NDDOT) and Wayde Swenson (director of NDDOT operations), NDDOT engineers and Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute’s Alan Dybing.
Titled Road Consumption: Perception, Reality and What We Can Do About It, around 25 to 30 very involved producers and officials got down to it. We were treated to an explanation of road funding with the bottom line being that the Feds have played the major role (I would approximate about 80%) but their funding has also been largely flat the last dozen years. Our state support comes mostly from the Highway Tax Distribution Fund with approximately 10% coming from Driver’s License fees and other permits.
While most in attendance thought our state’s roads good to fair overall, the UGPTI study clearly shows that we are falling behind because NDDOT income from state fuel taxes and vehicle fees are unchanged since 2005 while costs and traffic have increased with the oil boom and population growth. Asphalt surfacing was about half a million dollars in 2005 and cost $1.1 million in 2017, for one example. DOT stressed how pavement preservation before a road deteriorates past a 40% drop in quality is 6 to 14 times cheaper than rehab or reconstruction. The 23-cent ND motor fuel tax dates to 2005 and if that tax had been indexed, today it would be around 29 to 30 cents which is the average of our neighboring states. A penny of that tax raises approximately. $7.8 million.
After a review of these and many more statistics, we went over how roads are consumed. Measured in ESALs which stands for Equivalent Single Axle Loads, the charts show how adding axles to trucks and trailers can greatly increase weight hauled without wreaking greater havoc on the road. On a single axle, a 10% increase in weight will create a 45.6% increase in relative damage. Engineers measure this in ESALS and I would need pages to go into any depth, but UPGTI studies show that we are consuming roads faster than we can fund upkeep. DOT stressed that while our local governments and the state are responsible for providing a safe transportation system, this cannot be accomplished if motorists are damaging bridges and roads. They want to work together to keep ND roads in good shape.
Overall I would say that the consensus was two-fold; the public needs to be educated on how roads are consumed and that our system of road preservation needs a consistent and higher level of funding. The brain-storming from these officials and producers that took place all afternoon came to the conclusion that somehow a champion must drive the agenda. That could be a state agency, commodity group(s) or who knows? We adjourned after a full day of information and free exchange of ideas knowing the discussion must continue. The next legislative session starts in January.