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Patched Highway Bill Not Enough, Lawmakers Say

A closer look at one of the many states looking for a better solution when it comes to highway funding.

Wed August 13, 2014 - National Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) - North Dakota’s federally backed road projects - including an expansion of U.S. Route 85 - will go on as scheduled after Congress passed a patch bill last week. But lawmakers say the legislation that provides highway funds until May 2015 only highlights the need for a long-term fix.

“Waiting until the last minute, before we’re shutting down construction projects, just isn’t the way we should be doing this,” said North Dakota Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.

Her Republican counterpart, Sen. John Hoeven, voiced a similar sentiment after Congress agreed to fund the Highway Trust Fund through May 2015. Had Congress not passed a bill, the fund would have been drained - leaving states without funding for projects that are already underway.

North Dakota receives federal funds for a number of road projects, but one of the most critical is expanding U.S. 85 to four lanes in a stretch of western North Dakota that’s grown rapidly during the state’s oil boom. The north-south highway extends to Canada and South Dakota.

Since 1990, the state has seen a 71 percent increase in its highway usage, and the state’s existing infrastructure can barely keep up with a booming oil industry which produced more than 1 million barrels of oil per day in May, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration report released on Monday.

“There’s a lot of concern about safety on that road,” Heitkamp said. “And we don’t see that flow of traffic going away any time in the future.”

Hoeven said the short-term measure was critical to projects already underway in the state, though North Dakota’s long-term needs and its ability to plan rests heavily on Congress’ ability to pass a multi-year bill in the near future.

His preference, he said, is a six-year bill that will allow states to sketch out future projects with some degree of certainty. “I am committed to working toward that goal,” Hoeven said.

For now, the most immediate concerns have been assuaged. Heitkamp said the highway bill is particularly important for a state like North Dakota because even a brief slowdown can have a dramatic effect. Stopping during the summer, North Dakota’s construction season, would set projects back more than in warm weather states, she said.

“We have to get while the getting’s good here,” Heitkamp said.

The prospects of a multi-year highway bill will take shape during a politically unpredictable period, after November’s midterm elections and a new Congress taking office in January. Highway funding has historically been a bipartisan issue, albeit one that presents difficult funding questions.

During the current struggle to keep the Highway Trust Fund coffers full, the Democrat-controlled Senate and GOP-held House have differed in their approaches to funding, so any deal will be shaped by which party controls the Senate after November’s election.

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