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COVID-19 having an impact on future of state infrastructure

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Funding talks for road and bridge repairs across the county is expected to heat up soon, all thanks to COVID-19.

Wednesday, KX News looked into how the pandemic could impact infrastructure for years to come.

“We can’t have an agricultural economy without transportation, and we can’t have a normal daily productive successful life without good transportation,” said North Dakota Department of Transportation Director Bill Panos.

It’s been a bumpy ride for most Americans over the past few months thanks to the coronavirus.

And while that’s a figure of speech, could your ride actually get bumpier sooner than later due to the pandemic?

The state DOT gets a large chunk of its funding from the motor vehicle fuel tax and Motor Vehicle Registration Fees.

They provided KX News with a chart, showing highway traffic in May was down every day but one versus the same day a year ago.

And less cars means less people buying gas and putting money back into the DOT’s pockets.

KX News sat down with Panos who says things haven’t slowed down, they’ve actually sped up.

“We have been bringing projects to the front of our construction season about a month early. We started everything to get the economy going because one of the best ways of getting an economy going is investing in infrastructure,” said Panos.

He adds the DOT has also been asked to look at ways to make itself a better agency after the pandemic passes, especially in the DMV portion of the department.

We asked him if that’s corporate speak for job cuts and got a surprising answer.

“In fact if anything, we have plans to actually grow staff, because what happens usually during economic downturn is that government invests in infrastructure. And they do it for a number of different reasons, but they start investing in infrastructure,” said Panos.

Also expected to be heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic is the highly publicized Prairie Dog bill that supplies critical infrastructure funding to communities all across the state. And some leaders we spoke with tell us they’re already expecting less funding than initially promised.

In New Salem, they were promised a little over $162,000, but they were proactive, requesting grants and some loans to help with a multi-phase infrastructure project that started last year.

“The Prairie Dog funds would have been beneficial because basically we wouldn’t have had to take out that much more in loans, so I’m not going to say it doesn’t affect us, because free money is always good money, but are we covered, yes. We’re covered,” said New Salem Mayor Lynetter Fitterer.

The DOT adds they’ve been in constant contact with Washington to get enough transportation funding from the next stimulus bill.

They also tell us even though they’ve started projects ahead of schedule, they still have enough to last the entire construction season.

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