Minot and Ward County might not have moved fast enough in getting Minot's northeast bypass and 55th Street overpass into construction.
North Dakota's U.S. senators are scrambling now to find a way to save $14.13 million for the project after the House voted in February to withdraw stimulus grants not yet spent.
Loss of the money would kill the project, said Dana Larsen, Ward County highway engineer.
"I don't know how they can award you money and then take the money away," he said. "That's really not a contingency we had planned for."
The decision to rescind unspent stimulus dollars was made Feb. 19 during House passage of a continuing resolution to fund the federal government through 2011. Minot's Northeast Bypass project was awarded $14.13 million in a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant.
Dave Leftwich, deputy director of business support with the state transportation department, said the grant came with a two-year window for initiating work. The city and county felt they could take the time needed to design a project.
"Because the funds were limited, the city and county wanted to make sure that we were doing the right thing and spending the money wisely double checking everything," Leftwich said. "All of a sudden Congress said if you haven't spent it by now, we will take it back. So it caught a lot of people by surprise."
The federal government doesn't obligate funds until plans have been finalized and rights of way obtained. The bypass project is three to four weeks away from that point, said city engineer Rusten Roteliuk.
Congress was hoping to finalize a bill by the end of next week to fund government through the rest of the fiscal year, ending Sept. 30. The government is operating on an interim appropriations bill that expires after next week.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said he will try to preserve the funding for the bypass project. To make cuts, Congress needs to prioritize funding, but failing to fund the bypass is the wrong priority, he said.
Rep. Rick Berg, who voted for the House bill, stands by his vote.
"The congressman is absolutely very invested in making sure that our nation's infrastructure is maintained, and, obviously, in North Dakota that's a huge concern," said his spokeswoman Alee Lockman. "But right now our nation is facing a deficit, and our No. 1 priority has to be reducing that and getting our economy back on track."
She said Berg's opposition is to economic stimulus programs and not the Minot project. He believes the proper way to fund the project is through the traditional transportation appropriation process.
Larsen said regular federal transportation funds don't pay for individual projects. Money goes to the states for allocation, and Ward County's share is about $700,000 a year.
"It would take 20 years for the county to come up with $14.5 million," he said.
Leftwich said that there is no discretionary money in federal transportation funding that would cover a project like the bypass.
"That's why this TIGER grant was kind of a godsend," he said.
Larsen added that the city and county already have spent nearly $1 million of their own funds on engineering. Those are funds spent only because the federal government promised money for construction, he said. If the project dies, those will be wasted dollars that could have been spent elsewhere, he said.
Increasing truck traffic to Minot's intermodal facility and agricultural park prompted Ward County and Minot to pursue a highway bridge over the railroad tracks at 55th Street, between Gavin Yard and the Port of North Dakota. The bridge became part of a $23 million bypass project that was awarded $17 million in federal funds. Nearly $3 million was from a federal program not affected by the House bill.