There are 4,355 bridges in North Dakota. Of those, 10.8% are structurally deficient, according to a report last year in the Grand Forks Herald.
And how much would it cost to repair those approximately 470 deficient bridges?
Brace yourself. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association estimates the price would be north of $243 million. It’s out of the price range of public entities such as counties, towns and townships. Add in other infrastructure needs in North Dakota – most everybody can point to a road that needs to be fixed or a water project that needs financial help – and it’s obvious the state has a backlog of public projects that will continue to grow. Meanwhile, North Dakota has that $7 billion piggy bank called the Legacy Fund.
Last week, Gov. Doug Burgum suggested using a portion of the earnings from the Legacy Fund savings to issue low-interest loans to public entities to tackle some of the growing infrastructure projects throughout North Dakota.
It’s just a proposal for now, but it’s a good path for the state and a reasonable use of dollars generated by the Legacy Fund. It would allow for up to $1.25 billion in bonds, drawn upon interest generated by the Legacy Fund. Importantly, it does not dip into the fund’s principal, but only skims from its earnings.
As reported by Forum News Service, the state would gather cash by selling bonds to investors and then repay them at a low rate of interest. Then, $700 million would be made available as "legacy loans" to North Dakota cities and counties, which could borrow funds at low interest rates for various infrastructure projects.
Again, that announcement came during the governor’s budget address Thursday. The next morning, he and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford clarified how it could work and why the timing is right.
“In many cases, we think with bonding, we will be able to take a dollar of bonded money and leverage it with multiple federal matching dollars for road and transportation work,” he told the Herald. “... The federal government is working to keep interest rates near zero, and that won’t be the case forever. We have the opportunity to save hundreds of millions of dollars going forward for taxpayers.”
Sanford said the governor’s office has received feedback from Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski and other mayors.
“They are all needing gap financing between what they can bond on a general obligation bond versus what they can put on their taxpayers on special assessments for those streets and those infrastructure projects,” Sanford said. “(Mayors are) looking for that gap funding piece. If you have to borrow 5% interest rate for 10 years, that’s a lot different as far as trying to find the funds for that than if it’s 1 or 2% for 20 to 30 years. That is the intent from our $700 million proposal for an infrastructure revolving loan fund. ...”
The governor’s proposal is a sound plan and deserves strong consideration when the Legislature convenes next month.