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Jamestown lawmaker seeks to keep highway maintenance shops open

BISMARCK-With constituents worried about quickly clearing snow from roads, a North Dakota lawmaker made an unsuccessful attempt to keep several highway maintenance shops open Tuesday, Feb. 14.

State Sen. Terry Wanzek

BISMARCK-With constituents worried about quickly clearing snow from roads, a North Dakota lawmaker made an unsuccessful attempt to keep several highway maintenance shops open Tuesday, Feb. 14.

Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, tried to attach an amendment to the North Dakota Department of Transportation budget bill requiring the agency to keep all of the state's shops in operation through mid-2019. The amendment would also provide for a legislative study of the shops' proposed closure "and the impact of services in the areas affected," as well as the possibility of cooperating with local political subdivisions.

The amendment ultimately failed and the budget passed the Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday morning. Wanzek said he intends to try to amend the bill on the Senate floor.

Wanzek said he wasn't enthusiastic about micromanaging the DOT, but "the outcry that I've heard from members in my district that have these shops in their area, it is overwhelming."

"I just feel that this is something, that in representing the people of my district, that I have to bring forward," he added.

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The amended DOT budget includes a $66.4 million reduction in operating expenses from the $295.8 million included in the base budget, a 22 percent decrease. It also decreases the full-time equivalent positions in the department by 31.5, from 1,080.5 to 1,049.

Jamie Olson, a DOT spokeswoman, said the proposed consolidation of eight maintenance "sections" into neighboring facilities would save about $2.1 million in the coming two-year budget cycle. She said the buildings are aging and today's snowplows can cover more miles.

"They're able to do more than they were before," Olson said. "Those rural roads that some of these sections lie on, there's still going to be service. They're just going to be serviced out of the next shop over."

The shops slated for closure are in Starkweather, Finley, Fessenden, Gackle, Litchville, New England, Courtenay and Mayville, Olson said. There are 67 section shops across the state, Olson said, along with with additional shops at the eight main district locations.

Sen. Gary Lee, R-Casselton, said the DOT was asked to "look at their budgets critically just like everyone else was." Olson said the department saw a 13 percent decline in 2015 in highway tax distribution revenues, a main source of funding for operations, because of a slower economy and lower fuel tax collections.

"We ask them to seek out efficiencies, and then we tell them we don't want them," Lee said in arguing against Wanzek's amendment.

But Sen. John Grabinger, D-Jamestown, there has been a "grassroots effort" with petitions attempting to persuade lawmakers and department officials.

"They're going out to every farm and everything, getting these signatures," he said. "It is important to these people."

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