UPDATED: Senate approves DOT budget, funding for oil counties

UPDATED 11:57 a.m. BISMARCK—Help will soon be on the way to help with infrastructure needs across North Dakota, particularly in the state’s oil-producing counties.

The state Senate unanimously approved the state’s Department of Transportation budget on Monday. The budget includes $370.6 million in one-time funding for oil counties and $60 million in one-time funding for the non-oil producing counties.

The oil money is slated to be split so $142 million goes to townships and counties and $228.6 million goes to state highways in oil country, said Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson.

As for the non-oil county money, the Senate approved $10 million more than the House. The Senate directs $35 million to go out by July, with the other $25 million for the 2011-13 biennium.

Eighty percent would go to counties and cities and 20 percent to townships. The money would be allocated using the highway distribution formula.

Senators praised the budget and the much-needed help it will provide the state’s stressed infrastructure.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” said Sen. George Nodland, R-Dickinson. “To me, it’s probably one of the most important bills in this session.”

People don’t realize how much the funding means to western North Dakota, he said.

Rep. Shirley Meyer, D-Dickinson, also said she was pleased with the budget and that additional money was provided to help the state’s non-oil producing counties.

The Senate’s version of House Bill 1012 also provides authority for the DOT to use $1.2 million in previous funding for highway rail grade crossing safety projects.

The bill allows the DOT to borrow up to $120 million from the Bank of North Dakota to provide funding for emergency relief projects on the state highway system.

Wardner said they don’t foresee the DOT borrowing that much money, and federal funding received for projects would repay the loans. Authorizing the borrowing allows projects to begin sooner rather than waiting for the federal money to arrive, he said.

The Senate also approved nine new DOT positions. The bill also requests a study of the state’s airplanes, including the justification for each one and how often they’re used.

The overall DOT budget is $1.5 billion. Of that, about $1.2 billion is from federal and special funds, such as gasoline tax revenue, Wardner said. The budget is also financed with money from the state’s permanent oil tax trust fund. The general fund provides $5.85 million for Devils Lake, he said.

Both Republican and Democratic Senate leaders applauded the bill, which must now go back to the House for review.

The Legislature has also approved increasing the state’s oil impact fund from an $8 million cap per biennium to $100 million. Oil-impacted areas can apply for additional aid from that fund, which is financed through oil tax collections.

The Legislature has also approved a study that will look at transportation infrastructure needs for all county and township roads in the state during the next two years. This will help legislators determine funding needs for the 2013 legislative session.