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Officials switch to Internet session for public meeting on road funding

PIERRE -- While the federal funding level remains uncertain, the state Department of Transportation is pushing forward with its public meetings this summer about South Dakota's next highway plan.

In a switch, one meeting will be converted to a statewide Internet session.

Department officials announced the change Thursday to the state Transportation Commission.

"We're hoping we can get more participation on this," Joel Jundt said. He is the department's director of planning and engineering.

The schedule in recent years has been five community meetings. Typically 100 to 120 people attended in total, according to Jundt.

Four of the communities will host the meetings again this summer:

• July 22 -- Aberdeen, Ramkota Convention Center, 7 p.m. local;

• July 23 -- Sioux Falls, Ramkota Hotel, 7 p.m. local;

• July 24 -- Pierre, Ramkota Hotel, 7 p.m. local; and

• July 29 -- Rapid City, Ramkota Hotel, 7 p.m. local.

Last summer, Mitchell hosted the fifth community meeting. Instead, the fifth meeting will be converted to the webinar-style presentation at 1:30 p.m. on July 30.

DOT officials present their proposed four-year plan at the meetings and take public comments about it.

Known as the STIP -- Surface Transportation Improvement Program -- the latest proposal will cover the 2015 through 2018 construction years.

The plan is updated annually, and occasionally adjustments are made during the year.

The webinar meeting will use audio-visual teleconferencing at various Department of Transportation and other locations across South Dakota. The sites will be announced in the coming days.

"We're also working so you can log-on from your PC," Mike Behm said. He is a department manager for project development.

The 2015 construction program calls for overall spending of $311.8 million. That includes $222.7 million for highways, $30 million for bridges, $49.6 million for safety improvements and $9.5 million for other work.

More than $260 million is expected from federal sources and some $50 million will come from state funding.

However, the federal highway account is projected to run short of money possibly as soon as late August, Jundt said.

He said members of Congress plan to complete work on temporary funding legislation by the end of August. That would ensure money through December.

"It would be great if we had a full year's appropriation," Jundt said. "But we'll take what we can get."

This complicates the 2014-2015 improvement plan. "We can't bankroll it. There's not enough funds we have on the state side of the equation to fund those," Jundt said.

The standard process calls for contractors to bill DOT and be paid. DOT then bills the federal program.

A continuing shortfall could force a reduction of South Dakota's construction program for the coming year. There is enough state money to pay contractors for their work this summer and fall, according to Jundt.

"We feel we can absorb this through at least September," he said.

Rationing last happened eight years ago. The Department of Transportation received two letters recently from federal highway officials stating that rationing could occur.

"Our concern is next construction season," Jundt said.