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Officials want highway dollars preserved

BISMARCK -- North Dakota has more miles of roads to maintain per capita than any other state, a good reason for local and state officials to worry whether they'll see fewer highway construction dollars in the next few years.

BISMARCK -- North Dakota has more miles of roads to maintain per capita than any other state, a good reason for local and state officials to worry whether they'll see fewer highway construction dollars in the next few years.

"Over the next two or three months, this is a very critical time," Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., told county commissioners and road superintendents, contractors and city administrators Friday.

Dorgan said the Bush administration's proposed six-year highway funding plan contains, on a national level, less money each of the next three years than this year.

"And we don't get to current levels until 2007," he said.

The state's deputy transportation director, Tom Freier, said there's reason to be concerned, but no cause for panic.

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He considers the administration's plan their "first offer."

The actual national highway spending figure for the current fiscal year is $31.8 billion. When the North Dakota Legislature began meeting this year, Freier said, the figure was $27.7 billion and when the Bush administration first announced this year's amount it was only $23 billion to $24 billion.

The other threat, Dorgan said, is that the so-called "donor states" -- states that pay more in federal fuel taxes than they receive -- want a bigger share. Their ratio is about 90 percent now and they want to get it up to 95 percent, Dorgan said. North Dakota gets about $1.84 back for every dollar of federal fuel tax it collects.

"They see the present situation as unfair. I don't," Dorgan said.

Highway money is not just important for roads, those at the meeting said.

Every million dollars spent building or fixing roads in North Dakota represents 33 jobs, said Curt Peterson of the Association of General Contractors.

Nationwide, said other contractors, a billion dollars in federal highway funds means 47,000 jobs while a billion spent on defense represents only 25,000.

Dorgan urged them to stay in touch with the White House.

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"It's important that all of you continue to communicate with the president, saying this is what you want," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Janell Cole at (701) 224-0830

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