May 6, 2005

Wilmington Area Planning Council refused to endorse Delaware Department of Transportation's pared down capital-spending proposal and decided to come up with its own list of projects which should be dropped from the Transportation Improvement Plan for the coming three fiscal years.

If the council and the department do not reach an agreement by June 15, some or all of the state's federal transportation financing would be jeopardized, principal planner Heather Dunigan told the council's governing body. But all indications at the meeting on May 5 were that that will not happen.

Ralph Reeb, designated representative for transportation secretary Nathan Hayward on the council, said the department has no problem with the course of action the panel adopted unanimously. He and Lee Ann Walling, Governor Ruth Ann Minner's representative, voted in favor of it.

Nevertheless, there was uncharacteristically strong criticism at the meeting regarding the way that DelDOT sliced $202 million worth of work from its agenda for the fiscal year beginning July 1. That reduced the plan by about a third to $445 million.

As Delaforum first reported, word of the cutback reached the council on the evening it was scheduled to vote to approve the 2006-08 Transportation Improvement Plan which the Council had produced through a public review and prioritization process on the basis of DelDOT's original proposals for each of the three years.

The planning council concluded at that meeting in March that it had been blindsided and deferred what was expected to have been routine endorsement of the plan.

While it was told what the cuts would be, it was given no information on "who made the cuts or the basis for removing or reducing [state financing for] these particular projects" from the plan, Dunigan told the May 5 meeting.

It later was disclosed, during Hayward's presentation to the General Assembly joint committee considering state government's proposed fiscal 2006 capital spending, that DelDOT officials did the paring in response to a directive from the state budget office.

Reeb told the council meeting that there had been no prior commitment to spending $647 million in the coming year and that revising the original plan "makes sense when you don't have all the money you need." He said DelDOT put forth the larger amount in the original version of the plan because that was what would be needed "when we added up what everybody wanted to do."

He described the budget office's limit as reasonable. "Although some people think that the sky is falling, we're spending more money than we did last year," Reeb said. He was not able to immediately provide comparative figures.

The most significant cut from the initial plan was $33.6 million for replacing the interchange between Concord Pike and Interstate 95. Also cut was $17 million to replace 68 Delaware Transit buses and $8 million to repave the Korean War Veterans Highway between Tybouts Corner and Hares Corner Road. Reductions included $8 million from support for development of Christina Riverfront in Wilmington and $5 million from bicycle and pedestrian paths in Brandywine Hundred and the Newark area.

The council's public advisory committee called the cuts and reductions the result of an "arbitrary and capricious decision-making process" at DelDOT.

"The projects that were cut back had strong public support," said Tim Plemmons, chairman of the committee. What amounted in effect to circumventing the planning council's role in providing public participation in the transportation decision-making process was "a breech of public confidence," he said.

"There is far too much confusion about how and why these cuts were made," said Joseph Mitchell, a member of the committee for 14 years.

The council's technical advisory committee also objected to the way the cutbacks were made.

Civic activist Fritz Griesinger said cutting $1 million originally slated for initial planning for an extension of Churchmans Road through Delaware Park racetrack to Kirkwood Highway amounted to jeopardizing public safety in order to save two-tenths of 1% of the now proposed budget. "If you don't start now the project is not going to happen," he said.

He contrasted unwillingness to spend that much money to support the expansion of Christiana Hospital with DelDOT's spending or committing $70 million to provide roads to benefit Astra Zeneca's expansion. "That was about jobs; this is about saving lives," he said. He refereed to the additional time it takes emergency vehicles to reach the hospital through traffic congestion or having to take a circuitous route.

"If we knew we only had $400 million to work with," the council's professional staff could have reduced the originally proposed plan in a way which would have included meeting public priorities, Dunigan said.

She noted that proportionately higher cutbacks were made "at the expense of [public] transit and 'nonmotorized' projects."

The council voted to table a resolution to approve the plan and directed to the staff to apply its prioritization process to a revised plan to be presented to the council for its approval at a special meeting to be held in time to meet the June 15 federal deadline. No date was set for that meeting.

While agreeing that that can be accomplished, Dunigan cautioned that the council "is not in a position where we can force DelDOT to do any project."

The Transportation Improvement Plan it finally approves is advisory. However, she said, DelDOT will not receive federal financing for any project that is not in the approved plan.

The council is the designated planning organization for complying with the federal requirement that public opinion play a significant role in determining which transportation projects the Federal Highway Administration will help to finance in New Castle County and Cecil County, Md.

The council also voted unanimously to approve the portion of the Transportation Improvement Plan which applies to Cecil County.

After receiving favorable votes on those two motions Charles Baker, who represents County Executive Christopher Coons on the council, proposed that it ask the General Assembly to "come up with money to 'fund' some of these projects" that were cut at the behest of the budget office. The "extra" money that would require would be available as the result of increases in the amount of state revenue that the Delaware Economic & Financial Advisory Council is projecting for the current fiscal year since the governor submitted her proposed capital-spending budget, he said.

That resolution failed to get the necessary quorum majority vote when five of the nine council members, including Reeb and Walling, abstained.

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