December 17th was the final meeting for the new Transportation Coalition before the legislative session starts in less than three weeks. We heard from Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner who presented slides explaining what he would like to do for infrastructure. Using bonding and leaving the General Fund alone, his proposal for using Legacy Fund earnings (not the principal) includes $295 million for water projects which would involve the Fargo Diversion, Mouse River Flood control, the Red River Water Supply and WAWS as well as $50 million for municipal water infrastructure. For roads and bridges he has $60 million for county, township and state bridges and $100 for roads amongst those same entities. And then, what Rich called “In Lieu of Prairie Dog” (his funding plan whose buckets did not fill because of low oil prices), he would use $170 million or so in bonding for infrastructure to help Cities ($90.4 million), Counties ($80.4 million) and Airports ($20 million). Besides some for Workforce Development, there is also $50 million to add to the $6 million raised by commodity groups and the $20 million from last session to build the Agricultural Products Development Center which would include NCI and replace Harris Hall. Sen Wardner said his bonding bill was $1 billion and that the Governor’s budget proposal was $1.25 if I heard correctly. Both the Legislative proposal and the Governor’s proposals include bonding and revolving loan funds and Rich said that a blend of these tools is possible as well as stating that the two plans are somewhat parallel and close in some regards.
Then DOT Director Bill Panos told us his budget from the Governor was up a bit from the $1.4 billion last biennium – $860 million of that is Federal funds and $630 million in state funds. The breakout of $302 in bond funds for transportation projects is: $237 million for 10 year infrastructure projects, $50 million for Hwy 85 and $15 million for bridges. When I asked him if he was happy with the ratio of highway vs. bridge spending, he replied that he was not because we rank much lower (42) than other states when it comes to overall bridge conditions. He is new to North Dakota but experienced from leading the Department of Transportation in Wyoming. With his ability to communicate and his formidable knowledge, I believe that he will be a force that can lead to greater funding eventually improving our conditions here in North Dakota. The Coalition then discussed supporting Legacy Fund earnings for infrastructure investments and other tools heading into the session. It looks positive at this point.