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UGPTI Hosts Statewide Discussion on Mobility and Transportation

Posted: Jun 18, 2008

NDSU's Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute has been hosting a statewide discussion on the mobility needs of North Dakota and the state of its transportation infrastructure.

Since March, the Institute has hosted regional workshops in Williston, Dickinson, Minot, Bismarck, Devils Lake, Jamestown, Grand Forks and Fargo. A state-wide conference to summarize input and tap input from state leaders was held in Mandan May 1. All told, nearly 600 people attended the sessions. A summary of the discussions will be presented to the North Dakota Legislature's Interim Transportation Committee at a meeting in Fargo June 19.

"People expect a lot out of North Dakota's transportation system," says Jon Mielke, a UGPTI researchers and one of the organizers of the sessions. "Demands on that system, both for personal mobility and for economic activity are growing. At the same time, costs to maintain and improve the system are escalating and revenues are not keeping pace."

At the statewide meeting May 1, UGPTI researcher Alan Dybing presented results of a study that showed the annual roadway and bridge funding needs for North Dakota nearly $540 million. At the same time, the Federal Highway Trust Fund is expected to be depleted next year with the projected loss of $70 million in federal highway funding as a consequence.

Complicating the problem has been inflation in the cost of building materials and fuel. Representatives from the city, township, county and state levels outlined how budgets are being squeezed. Mielke notes that the producer price index increased by 32 percent from 2001 to 2005. Revenue for the state highway system increased by only 18 percent during that time. From 2001 to 2008, the North Dakota Department of Transportation experienced construction cost increases of approximately 60 percent.

"The result of that reduced buying power is deferred maintenance," Mielke says. But deferring maintenance on the state's road network is expensive because pavement deterioration is an accelerating process. Ride quality on new pavement declines by about 40 percent over the first 20 years of its life. After that, pavement deteriorates much more rapidly. That means a road rehabilitation project that occurs when pavement is 20 years old will cost 400 percent to 500 percent more if the project is delayed 7-8 years.

Francis Ziegler, director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, said the state's highway system is in a preservation mode and that 39 percent of the asphalt roadways are considered mediocre. He noted that demands on the road system are increasing. Manufacturing, energy production, and crop production have all increased substantially in the state with a corresponding need for freight mobility.

Mark Johnson, executive director of the North Dakota Association of Counties says with about half of all county roads in the state in fair condition and about one-third considered poor, delay is not an option. "We need to invest in our road network and now is the time to do it. We no longer have the comfort of expecting or waiting for federal funds," he says.

Expenses that are escalating faster than revenues are also a problem for the state's transit agencies. "We need to look at the human factors involved with these issues," Pat Hansen said. She is program director at South Central Adult Services, which provides transit services for the Valley City area.

"Roads and bridges are important, but we're transporting people, sometimes up to 300 miles round trip, for very important medical services," Hansen says. "Mobility is not just about cost, it's about quality of life. I appreciated that I was able to make that point."

Hanson says the meetings performed the important task of providing the same information to transit operators, transportation officials, and state and local decision makers across the state. "I have a much better idea of what transportation issues are facing the state and I can see the legislative issues and challenges that we're facing."

UGPTI director Gene Griffin told the group that several strategies could be employed to address the situation.

"We will need to continue to work smarter and make better use of our scarce resources," he said. That ability is currently limited by technology, institutional barriers and collective and individual pride. We can make great strides if we can overcome those barriers or at least push them back."

Griffin also noted that decision makers will need to set clear priorities that take into account transportation needs. "This rationalization requires political will," he said. "But the result will be a transportation system that meets the state's fundamental needs and a set of minimal demands."

With innovation and a rationalized approach to demands within the state will come a need for additional funds, Griffin said. "There is a growing recognition among federal, state and local agencies as well as within the private sector, that maintaining and enhancing our transportation system needs to be a priority."

Published in NDSU's staff newsletter
It's Happening at State
Jun. 18, 2008

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