The South Dakota Department of Transportation is seeking a slightly smaller budget from state lawmakers for fiscal year 2018.
Transportation Secretary Darin Bergquist outlined his department’s request before the Joint Appropriations Committee Tuesday morning.
Fiscal year 2018 begins July 1. The DOT budget request is for $686.8 million, which is what Gov. Dennis Daugaard recommended in his budget address. That’s $656,789 less than this year’s transportation budget.
One big reason for the decrease, Bergquist said, is that the DOT plans for 12 fewer full-time equivalent employees. Under his proposal, the department would have 1,014.3 full-time equivalents next fiscal year. The reduction is the result of underused jobs because it can be difficult to find maintenance workers and project technicians, he said.
Scaling back the workforce saves $490,000, Bergquist said. In fiscal year 2007, he said, the DOT had 1,075 full-time equivalents.
Increases to the state fuel and vehicle excise taxes were realized in full for the first time in 2016. Both took in more than projected, Bergquist said. The state fuel tax increased six cents to 28 cents. The vehicle excise tax went up from 3 to 4 percent.
He said the department’s goal is to have 80 percent of its paved roads in excellent or good condition. Now, 84 percent meet that threshold, he said.
The DOT wants 95 percent of its bridges in good or excellent condition. The total is now 96 percent, Bergquist said.
But he estimated that 25 percent of local — often township or county — bridges are deficient, and there’s just not enough money to make the needed fixes.
Maintenance and construction costs were slightly lower last year and have plateaued in recent years, he said. That’s after years of increases related to the cost of oil-based substances used for roads and highways. Also, Bergquist said, contractors are having an easier time getting and retaining employees now that pressure from the Bakken oil fields has eased.
He said the DOT has tested a tow-behind plow in the Sioux Falls area this winter and it has worked well. As a result, there are plans to buy more of the plows for Aberdeen, Rapid City and perhaps Pierre.
“It allows you to plow twice the width in one pass,” Bergquist said.
That makes it very efficient, for example, to clear a stretch of interstate after it has been closed, he said.
With its wings extended, the trailer-mounted plow can clear 30 feet at a time, and it can carry enough de-icer to cover 50 miles.
The DOT is pitching two bills this session, Bergquist said. One would clarify that drones do not have to be registered with the state as they do federally. The other would give the Transportation Commission the authority to make state-funded loans for road and bridge work. That would be beneficial, he said, if a city needs to quickly make road improvements to benefit an economic development project.
Bergquist also noted Senate Bill 58, which would make the DOT responsible for the removal of snow and ice within the right of way, including on sidewalks, in towns with populations of less than 2,500. His budget proposal doesn’t include money for that work, he said.
The bill is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday morning in the Senate Local Government Committee.
A five-year federal federal highway bill passed in December 2015 benefited South Dakota, Bergquist said. It gave South Dakota a 5 percent boost ($13 million) in federal highway funding the first year with 2 percent increases set for the subsequent four years.
The downside, he said, is that Congress had to transfer $70 billion in general funds to cover the bill because the federal tax of 18.4 cents per gallon doesn’t yield enough money to pay for the bill.
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