By Bob Mercer
State Capitol Bureau
The inability of Congress to get a new transportation program approved this year was bad enough for South Dakota’s highway project planning. Now the situation is about to turn much worse because of the deadlock over the federal budget.
State Transportation Secretary Darin Bergquist said his department will need to become very cautious about bid lettings and must be sure sufficient federal funds will be available when South Dakota submits its bills.
The danger is that state government otherwise could be caught in the middle with debts it can’t pay.
All 50 states use a back-funding approach. They contract for projects to be constructed and then ask the federal government to pass along the money for the work. South Dakota sends bills approximately every two weeks.
In addition to the current highway program officially expiring Sept. 30, and the deadlock over the next budget, Bergquist said a backlog of debt is mounting at the federal level in the highway program.
He said the latest estimates show 95 percent of the expected 2015 federal highway funding will be needed just to cover projects already in the pipeline across the nation.
In 2008 federal highway officials said they could cover only 50 percent of the bills being submitted for projects.
“That created chaos among the states,” Bergquist said.
Congress began supplementing the highway program with general funds, which really meant borrowing more money. Five years later Congress still hasn’t reached an answer about how to handle that problem too.
Bergquist briefed members of the state Transportation Commission about the situation at their meeting Thursday.
“You used the term ‘iron out,’” commissioner Sam Tidball of Fort Pierre told him. “I think they’re working with a pretty cold iron.”
Bergquist said routine operations in South Dakota such as winter snow-plowing won’t be affected if there is a federal government shutdown.