President Trump and Congress are in discussions on how to change the funding formula for our nation’s highways. One of the topics on the table is flipping the current funding formula upside down. “Trump’s proposal is to flip the 80-20 formula on its head and require that states and cities kick in at least $4 for every $1 in federal money they receive.” According to Trump’s infrastructure analysis from Vox. Yesterday, Governor Doug Burgum said he would “welcome” that change. His timing and reasoning don’t add up.
Weeks ago, Governor Burgum told state agencies to find deeper cuts in their budgets. Depending on the size of the agency, he was calling from 5-10% in cuts. That would include the North Dakota Department of Transportation. Burgum wanted them to find an additional 3% just in case a lack of revenues called for it. This follows years of cuts and smaller budgets. Public workers have been denied raises. Rural Department of Transportation shops to maintain these same highways have been closed. Some of these cuts have fallen onto local governments and communities to make up the difference. Now, he is welcoming more of a budget burden onto them? What changed that makes Burgum think we can pick up more of the highway tab? Is it merely because President Trump offered the proposal?
“We have had a federal policy to build communities around automobiles, as opposed to building around people,” Burgum told Prairie Public. “If you leave it to North Dakotans, we’ll start building cities around people, because we’ll be spending 80 percent of our dollars and 20 percent federal.” That concept may sound trendy for a place like downtown Fargo, but pitch that to our communities under 500 people. Explain to the farmer who lives 30 miles away from their grain elevator that the highway project will need to wait because we’re building around people and cities.
It isn’t just the concept that seems off, it also comes down to the money. It doesn’t add up. Again I ask, how can Governor Burgum call for steeper budget cuts in the state while at the same time signaling we’d be able to commit more on infrastructure projects? People have suggested that maybe the state will be able to keep more of the share of the gas tax. Two things. One, the gas tax hasn’t been touched in a long time. Is it collecting enough for these projects? Two, North Dakota is still rural state with a relatively small population. Would it be able to collect enough gas tax to pay for its projects while the construction costs continue to rise? Would the Legislature tap the Legacy Fund for permanently funding infrastructure projects?
In his comments to Prairie Public, the Governor keeps talking about cities and city development. It appears his concept of “city” is downtown Fargo and not main street Leeds, Maddock, or any other town under 500 people. People often say, “North Dakota is a small town with long roads.” The saying reflects our small population and big geography. It isn’t nostalgic, in a lot of ways it is reality. Those long roads need to be maintained. This unproven strategy coming from Washington should not be welcomed at a time of such uncertainty.