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Big cuts loom for SD road projects

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By Bob Mercer

Capitol Correspondent

 PIERRE — Uncertainty over the direction Congress and the White House might take has South Dakota Department of Transportation officials preparing for a potential 30 percent reduction in federal highway aid starting in 2015 and putting some project plans on the shelf.

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 Congress already spends more than the federal highway trust fund receives in transportationrelated tax revenues. Since 2008, Congress has annually supplemented general funds into highway programs, adding approximately $40 billion in federal debt.

 South Dakota is one of the states that receives much more in federal highway aid than the trust fund gets in taxes — approximately twice as much in South Dakota’s case.

 Federal aid to South Dakota’s DOT totaled $385.1 million in 2011 and $379.7 million in 2012 and was budgeted at $377.9 million for 2013.

 By comparison, DOT raised from other sources such as state motor-fuel taxes $197.5 million in 2011 and $215.1 million in 2012 and was budgeted to bring in $207.7 million in 2013.

 The current federal program called MAP-21 expires Sept. 30, 2014. It is described as “a dead end” program because it was good for only two years. After the previous federal program expired, Congress needed two years and nine months to develop MAP-21.

 A recurring process known as a continuing resolution was used repeatedly by Congress to fill the gap during the deadlock.

 State Transportation Secretary Darin Bergquist said he doesn’t see any encouraging signs from Congress of late.

 He told members of the state Transportation Commission at their meeting a few days ago that he expects Congress to pass extensions of MAP-21 rather than develop a new longerrange program.

 That’s because 2014 is an election year for all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and one-third of the U.S. Senate.

 A further complication, he said, is federal budget sequestration.

 “It looks to me like it’s a stalemate and we’re going to be under continuing resolutions forever,” said commission member Bob Benson, of Winner.

 Cities, counties and tribal governments also could be affected by federal highway-aid receding.

 Specific programs are worth at least $12.8 million in federal aid directly to counties and $11.7 million in federal aid directly to cities for transportation projects in South Dakota.

 Cities and counties also receive millions of dollars annually through a variety of grants and payments from DOT.

 Those programs would be less likely to be available if South Dakota takes a cut of 30 percent or more — a loss of $120 million plus — in federal aid to DOT.

 Five years ago, some members of the Legislature wanted to pursue increases in state motor-fuel taxes and license plates.

 While they were eventually able to pass higher fees for license plates, which is shared among local governments, they couldn’t find support to raise fuel taxes for support of DOT.

 One reason was uncertainty about what Congress might do.

 “That’s where we stand again,” Bergquist said.

 
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