State wrestles with level of bonding to fund infrastructure projects

By Brayden Zenker

N.D. Newspaper Association Education Foundation

BISMARCK – Fixing those roads and bridges isn’t getting any cheaper, and local officials across North Dakota are looking for help from state government – which is facing its own budget crunch.

“In 2014, $333 million was the total estimate for road and bridge investment need in just Grand Forks County,” county engineer Nick West said. 

“There is just no way under our normal budgeting revenue mechanisms that we can replace that in a timely fashion. We’re always playing catch up.” 

According to a study conducted by the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, it would cost $9.303 billion over the next 20 years to address all of the infrastructure problems facing North Dakota. That breaks down to about $499 million for bridges, $2.62 billion for paved roads and $6.14 billion on unpaved roads. For paved roads, 60% of the funds must be used in the first decade due to lack of investments in previous years.

“It’s hard to be proactive when you can’t afford to get there. It’s a safety issue, really; that’s what it boils down to,” West said.

Infrastructure issues are a common concern for counties and townships across North Dakota. During the 2021 Legislative Session there have been three bonding proposals introduced to address infrastructure needs, ranging in cost from $800 million to $2 billion. 

“The bonding bill is a new way of funding important projects for North Dakota citizens,” Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, District 11, said. “To wait on these important projects is penny-wise, dollar-foolish because interest rates are so low right now.”

The Democrats, badly outnumbered in both legislative chambers, are not likely to prevail over a bonding proposal from Republican leadership, which last week whittled theirs back due to objections from some in that party that it would cost too much. 

The Democrats’ $2-billion proposal, sponsored by Mathern, addresses three main concerns: infrastructure, education and affordable housing. The proposal would set aside $230 million for the municipal and county and townships’ infrastructure funds, as well as $750 million for the school construction assistance revolving loan fund and $250 million for the housing incentive fund. The remaining $770 million would be used for grants to counties and cities to address road and bridge infrastructure projects.

“What happens now is we take our money as a state and send it to Wall Street,” Mathern said. “Wall Street [loans] it out to other states. Those states essentially use North Dakota’s money to grow their future. This bonding bill says, ‘Let’s use our money to grow North Dakota’s economy and people.’”

The approximately $800-million proposal introduced by Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, District 29, the House majority leader, would address many of the same concerns, but at a lower cost. The original bonding proposal from Republicans was $1.1 billion.

“There were those in the House that felt $1.1 billion was too much money,” Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, District 37, said. Wardner is one of three co-sponsors of the bonding bill.

The $800-million proposal allocates $50 million for the infrastructure revolving loan fund to address essential infrastructure projects and $70 million for bridge projects and to match federal funds. It includes $435.5 million for the Fargo flood diversion project and $74.5 million to the Resources Trust Fund for other water projects across the state. The proposal allocates $92.5 million to develop career and technical education across the state and $50 million for the Agriculture Development Center.

“I think if you get the money out there, you get the career and technical built, you get the flood control around Fargo, the economy is going to grow,” Wardner said. “I see a real positive future for North Dakota.”

Gov. Doug Burgum offered a $1.25-billion bonding proposal. It allocates $323 million for infrastructure projects, $182 million for maintenance for state-owned buildings and $45 million to develop career and technical education centers across the state. 

The governor’s proposal also would allocate $700 million to create a low interest revolving loan fund to provide money to address water, bridge and other infrastructure projects in the future.

“Rather than just grant the money out for projects, [the governor’s proposal] establishes this permanent revolving loan fund that allows that money to continue to benefit political subdivisions in the future,” said Joe Morrissette, director of the state Office of Management and Budget. “It doesn’t just take a one-time approach at addressing the infrastructure need. It would create this mechanism to always be there to fund these projects in the future.”

According to Barnes County Road Superintendent Kerry Johnson, not having a reliable source for funding is a main concern. 

“It’s hard to plan for the future with one-time funding. Those needs don’t go away,” Johnson said. “You can fix that one road for $3.5 million but there’s always another one.”

Johnson said the county is in “maintenance mode,” trying to keep roads from completely falling apart.

“You know you’re getting further and further behind every year,” Johnson said. “Then money started coming in and you can sort of see a light at the end of the tunnel, that we might dig ourselves out of this. But then the funding dried up.”

Stark County Road Superintendent Al Heiser said his main concern is the quality of bridges in his county. According to Heiser, there are around 108 bridges that need maintenance in the county. Of those 108, the county will have to pay for 38 with no assistance. 

“Everybody has needs or wants and as far as I’m concerned, a bridge is a need,” Heiser said.

According to Heiser, maintenance of one bridge costs on average around $300,000 but can range from $250,000 to $800,000.

West, the Grand Forks County engineer, said that infrastructure is a good investment because it benefits everyone.

“Everyone wants a good road, everyone wants flood protection, everyone wants good clean water to their homes,” he said. “All these things are basic essential functions that government should be providing.”

Daniel Weiss, senior executive director of pharmacy benefits at Sanford Health Plan, testified virtually on Jan. 6 before the N.D. House Human Services Committee on HB 1032, which relates to drug prescription costs. Virtual testimony over Zoom is now available during North Dakota’s 67th legislative session, which lawmakers hope will improve access for people across the state and lessen the risk of Covid-19.
NDNAEF photo by Dylan Sherman.

A pilot program for attending committee meetings online began in 2019, Bjornson said, but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the need for alternative means of public access to meetings.

“We had concerns about making it accessible to as many people as possible,” he said. “Our IT staff worked really hard to design, to the best of their ability, a process that eliminates hurdles and makes it as easy as possible.” 

As with any new procedures, Bjornson said, there likely will be kinks along the way, but the state is prepared to fix any issues that come up.

Josh Askvig, state director of the North Dakota AARP, said the switch to online viewing and testimony is an opportunity for himself and association members.

“We have members who live in Grand Forks and Williston who have always wanted to participate, but that is a long drive to come down for a hearing,” he said. “Well, now they can watch it online from their home, and there are also virtual testimony options for them now.”

Askvig said understanding the new technology has less to do with age and more to do with an individual’s own comfort with technology.

“There are folks that are well into their 70s and 80s who will have no problem doing it,” he said. “The more they use it, the more they will be comfortable with it.”

Askvig said the state AARP has started training and working with members and volunteers on accessing the tools to participate in proceedings this year.

“Another approach we have been taking is [asking] what other ways can we encourage members to reach out to legislators,” he said. “Whether it be via email, phone calls or hand-written messages and post cards, those are all tactics that we have not relied on as heavily in the past.”

While usually a regular at the Capitol, Askvig said this session will be different as he will try to be more judicious about when he needs to be there in person. “[We want to make sure] legislators understand that when we are in the room, this is a big priority for us,” he said.

Askvig said this session will be weird even for himself when he has to testify virtually for the first time.

“I wish we could all be together,” he said. “Obviously the right steps and measures have been taken to encourage people to be physically distant and wear masks.” 

Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, said it is great that people have more access, but he worries about online testimonies overwhelming his committee.

“[Anyone] can attempt to testify virtually, and it is up to me, as the chairman, to try to filter that out,” he said. “At least in my committee people that show up have priority.”

Weisz said he wants members of the public to have their voices heard, rather than leaving the virtual podium to experts from around the country. Virtual testimony also could make it more difficult to gauge the perception of the room, he said.

“I still think for most of us [on the committee], the personal interaction, facial expressions, mannerisms and reactions all help us kind of get a sense of who’s where,” he said.

Weisz echoed the concern that older constituents might not want to drive long distances to participate in a particular hearing. “People of my generation and older may be discouraged by it, but at the same time I am 75 years old – I don’t want to drive from Edgeley or Grafton and I can do it virtually,” he said.

Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said while it will be different without as much public in-person attendance, he hopes some of the changes will help people who can’t make the trip to the Capitol, this session and in the future.

“If members of the public are able to participate and want to testify, we are able to have them participate remotely,” he said. “I am hoping to see more engagement and participation from folks back home in Grand Forks.”