US DOT to Billings County: Go Find Money For Your Bridge Somewhere Else

Score one for the Little Missouri State Scenic River.

When U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced the recipients of a billion dollars worth of discretionary grants for infrastructure projects all over the United States this morning, including one in North Dakota, a $12.3 million grant to build a new bridge over the Little Missouri wasn’t among them.

That’s the best news we’ve gotten from this administration in four years. Because the news could have been exactly the opposite.

Hooray for the Little Missouri River!

I’ve written about this a few times before. Out in Medora, Billings County Commissioners have been trying to get funding for their $15 million “Bridge to Nowhere” for almost 15 years. They’ve already spent more than three million of their county taxpayers’ dollars in preliminary stages of the project, including a multi-million dollar Environmental Impact Statement designed to gain them favor with state and federal officials in a quest for federal highway tax money for the bridge project.

The state has refused to fund it. And now, so has Secretary Chao. Good for her.

The state has plenty of infrastructure problems which require every single dollar available for maintenance and repairs to existing roads and bridges.

Indeed, the state even asked Secretary Chao for a $25 million grant from that same BUILD Fund this year to raise the highways in the state’s prairie pothole region, which keep flooding on a regular basis during wet cycle years. Chao announced this morning she is giving them $22 million to do that.

 Obviously, the state’s DOT has its priorities right. There’s been no state money available for the bridge project, despite what I believe is some pretty intense lobbying. To build an expensive bridge, in the middle of nowhere in the Bad Lands, to accommodate the oil industry, just makes no sense with all the road and bridge work that needs to be done all over the state.

Interestingly, it’s not just the oil industry that’s been championing the bridge lately. There’s little oil play in Billings County right now, although there are some big future plans if the industry bounces back from the current bust.

But the bridge has become a vanity project for Billings County Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud, his legacy for the 20 years he has served on the County Commission. Arthaud faces some stiff position in his re-election effort this fall, something new to him—he’s had little opposition in past elections.

After years of trying to get North Dakota’s DOT to allocate some of its federal highway tax dollars to the project, Arthaud and his engineering firm, KLJ Engineering of Bismarck, pulled an end-around on the state, applying directly to the federal DOT for a grant through its BUILD program, the billion-dollar discretionary fund allocated to the DOT to replace what were formerly “earmarks.”   

The County Commissioners lined up support from all three members of the state’s Congressional Delegation as well as Governor Doug Burgum in its application to Secretary Chao, which probably should have been enough to guarantee the application’s success, even for a project that is as bad an idea as this one. Those guys usually have some pull with the Trump Administration.

But the little Missouri has its protectors, and they lined up against the project, flooding Chao’s office with letters of protest. I’m told the DOT has never seen such an outpouring of opposition to a grant application in the program’s ten-year history, dozens of letters asking Secretary Chao to reject the project. She did. The opposition effort was led by North Dakota’s public lands watchdog, the Badlands Conservation Alliance, which announced the news on its website this morning.

We probably haven’t heard the last of this bad idea though. Arthaud’s a persistent cuss. He told a Forum News Service reporter last week that the county will just pay for it themselves if they have to. “Billings has the financial wherewithal to build the bridge without a grant,” he said.

He’s right about that. Because of the oil tax dollars the sparsely-populated county receives, the county is the richest in the state, on a per capita basis. But it remains to be seen whether the county’s residents have the appetite for a $15 million bite out of their tax dollars for a bridge that will benefit very few of the county’s residents. That would be a commitment of about $19,000 for each of the county’s approximately 800 residents. And there’s that darn election coming up in a few weeks.  

There are fewer than a dozen ranches within ten miles of the proposed location for the bridge, so few county residents will use it. The biggest beneficiary seems to be the oil industry, if, and when, it bounces back. Those conservative ranchers might not be so keen on spending their county’s tax dollars solely for the benefit of the oil boys. The industry’s been around Billings County for a long time, and residents have watched them tossing their money around local taverns with their shiny new Suburbans and F-350’s parked outside. The idea of buying them a bridge might not be appealing.

Anyway, Arthaud’s comments about having to paying for it himself, with local funds, likely reflect the attitude of state officials, who think so little of the project they’ve not even included it in the state’s long-range Transportation Improvement Plan.

Today’s omission of the plan from the BUILD program just ends another chapter in this long book. It’s another setback for those interested in the industrialization of the Little Missouri State Scenic River valley.

But here’s a warning to those who would seek an industrial invasion of this valuable North Dakota resource: That little river is one tough sonofabitch. And she’s got a bunch of tough friends looking out for her.

That little river, no more than 50 yards wide in most places, carved our magnificent Bad Lands. It’s been around a lot longer than the Oil Barons and the County Commissioners who would devastate it for their personal gains, and it will be here long after they are gone.

So don’t mess with the Little Mo. Let her be. Take your oil tankers somewhere else. Keep them on big, wide, paved roads where they’re safer and don’t send up clouds of dust. And we’ll all get along just fine.  

P.S. Just in case you’re interested in seeing how your gas tax dollars get spent, here’s the whole billion-dollar list.

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