DOT: Feds’ funding cuts hurtFive-year road plan discussed during Thursday meeting in Mitchell
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
The state Department of Transportation expected to receive $289 million in federal funding for the 2013 fiscal year but has since learned it will get $273 million as part of the federal highway bill.
That’s a $16 million gap, and it will be felt in Davison County.
That figure and many more were provided during a meeting Thursday night in Mitchell on the proposed Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP). The STIP is an annual assessment of work the DOT plans to perform in the next five years.
In the next fiscal year, Davison County will get slightly less than $150,000 from the state in highway dollars, and Davison County Commission Chairman John Claggett and Davison County Highway Superintendent Rusty Weinberg said the county will feel the impact, since it hoped for an increase in funding to deal with roads and bridges in the county.
“You’re not going forward,” Claggett said.
“You’re going backward,” Weinberg said.
Joel Jundt, DOT’s director of planning and engineering, led the meeting and offered a presentation along with Laurie Schultz, the administration program manager, Mike Behm, the program manager for project development, DOT Regional Engineer Craig Smith and DOT Director of Operations Greg Fuller.
Other DOT staffers, including Mitchell Area Engineer Tammy Williams, were also in attendance at the one-hour meeting, held before a small crowd at the Mitchell Technical Institute Technology Center.
The DOT will spend $332,631,000 on highways, bridges, safety efforts and other expenses during the fiscal year. Most of that money, about 80 percent, comes from federal funding.
The vast majority of it, $284,999,000, will be devoted to highways. Another $27.9 million will be spent on bridges, while safety programs are budgeted to receive $13.8 million.
David Voeltz, the STIP coordinator, said some projects that are desired and needed may not be undertaken due to the funding cut, although he said South Dakota can borrow the “missing” $16 million from the federal government, which will take it from next year’s allocation.
“Overall, it just means a reduction in what we can do,” Voeltz said.
Voeltz said it’s important to note than in addition to the $150,000 sent to Davison County, the DOT spends millions on projects in Mitchell, Davison County and the area every year. The southeast corner of the state, which has the lion’s share of the state’s population, receives a great deal of funding ever year, he said.
Still, the money has to be divided between the state’s 66 counties based on population, road numbers and other factors, he said, and that means not every project that people want done can be attempted.
The $39.1 billion federal Highway Bill was passed June 30 and will take effect Oct. 1. Jundt said the South Dakota congressional delegation “did an excellent job” on helping move the bill ahead.
That was a concern, since some states wanted each state to keep its federal gas tax dollars. South Dakota receives $2 for every $1 it pays in federal gas taxes.
State Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he wondered if people have “lost their pride” in having and maintaining good roads. People used to get excited to see roads go from dirt to gravel to pavement, he said.
“Now we complain a lot if there are potholes in the road, but if you want to raise taxes, well, golly bum you can’t raise my taxes,” he said.
Vehle said he plans to continue to push for an increase in the state gas tax, or as he called it, the highway user fee.
“At some point, we are going to have to do something,” he said. “Because if you don’t, it’s going to cost a lot more down the road.”
He said he hopes voters will support lawmakers when they make the tough vote to raise taxes to pay for the state’s roads. Right now, South Dakota is maintaining its roads, but will have to invest more money to keep the system in good condition, Vehle said.
State Rep. Frank Kloucek, D-Scotland, and state Rep. Bernie Hunhoff, D-Yankton, also attended the meeting and spoke up.
Hunhoff asked about the condition of state Highway 46 and was told the road is being monitored. Most accidents on 46 are tied to animal hits and icy conditions, Jundt said, but if needed, more work will be done on the road.
Kloucek said the road is in better condition than it was. He said perhaps extending the deer season in the area would reduce crashes.
He also said toll roads and toll bridges may be an answer to replacing reduced federal dollars, as well as imposing user fees on people or companies who use highways and roads extensively.
Kloucek said there may be another solution. He said Gov. Dennis Daugaard could divert some of the recently disclosed state budget surplus to roads and bridges.
It wasn’t all sour news.
Behm said South Dakota’s state highways are in relatively good condition, and projects to keep them that way are either under way or being planned.
“We have a very good system out there,” he said.
But Behm said it will be a challenge to maintain that with an expected decline in federal funding.
The state’s bridges are also in solid shape, he said, with more than 80 percent of the bridges in the state highway system considered in good shape. That’s almost assuredly not the case with bridges maintained by counties, cities and townships, he admitted.
Weinberg said that’s his concern about a drop in funding.
Davison County needs to undertake some major bridge projects, he said, but they might cost up to $1.5 million. With the county receiving $150,000 annually, that might mean it would take a decade to complete such a task.
Behm said there are bridge funds in place that counties can apply for, but he said it is a challenge for government entities.
The DOT has already held meetings in Aberdeen and Sioux Falls and will have meetings in Pierre on Tuesday and in Rapid City Wednesday. Comments and recommendations based on input at the meetings will be taken to the state Transportation Commission, which make the final determination on the five-year plan later this year.