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September 2, 2005

 

Rather than instigate a likely cutoff of federal transportation financing for Delaware, Wilmington Area Planning Council directors approved a third version of its fiscal 2006 transportation plan. Although the vote was unanimous, some council directors made it clear they were not happy doing so.

"We ought to agree among ourselves that we will at least spend the money we have," said Ralph Reeb, who represents Delaware Department of Transportation on the panel. "We all wish we had more money to spend. [But,] if there is no [plan] adopted by Oct. 1, we can't spend [any] federal money."

Approved at the meeting on Sept. 1 was a revised fiscal 2006 Transportation Improvement Program which calls for spending $473.2 million less on road-building and other related transportation projects during this and the next two fiscal years than was originally planned. Also approved was shifting  $250 million of planned fiscal 2007 spending on Interstate 95 between Basin Road and the Maryland border to the current year.

Left unresolved was where a set of projects 'earmarked' for specific financing in the recently enacted federal transportation law stands. Receipt of that $84.5 million in federal money depends upon Delaware providing 20% matching funds. The Assembly presumably will be asked to authorize doing so when it reconvenes in January.

Implicit in  the directors' vote was rejection of a recommendation from the planning council's professional staff and its public advisory committee that action on the proposed amended plan be deferred until after a public workshop scheduled for Sept. 14. Other than to begin developing next year's plan, it is not clear at this point what, if any, bearing that session will have on the situation.

"The public will have a chance to comment on the much maligned [plan] ... but they won't be heard -- they will be told," Joseph Mitchell, who serves on the council's public advisory committee, told the directors during a brief public comment session at the beginning of the meeting.

As previously reported, the changes were necessary if the  program plan was to be brought  into line with DelDOT's share of the state's fiscal 2006 capital spending authorization approved by the General Assembly just before it adjourned in June. Earlier in the year, DelDOT had sharply reduced its capital-funds  request to the legislature from what was called for in the originally approved Transportation Improvement Program.

The transportation capital budgeting process mandated by federal law if the Federal Highway Administration is going to help pay for the various projects requires an area's designated planning council to come up with a three-year revolving spending plan which, in theory at least,  reflects the public's priorities. State transportation departments and  legislatures, which provide for the states' share of the financing, are expected to be guided by the plan.

This year in Delaware, the original fiscal 2006-08 plan approved by planning council directors early in the calendar year was all but ignored by DelDOT and the General Assembly.

While minor adjustments to the original plan are not unusual after the Assembly enacts the annual capital spending budget -- commonly referred to as the 'bond bill' -- this year's amendments amounted to a virtual rewriting of the plan.

Charles Baker, who represents New Castle County government, described that as a return to reality. "We were started off with a much bigger picture -- a fantasy. ... We lost $470 million in what we thought was in our plan. That's pretty significant," he said.

He submitted and the directors approved a motion directing the council's professional staff to come up with a proposed revision in the method by which it sets priorities for financing proposed projects. "Over the past few years, we've been able to do all the projects we wanted to do. ... We haven't had to prioritize projects," he said.

Kash Srinivasan, who represents Wilmington government, said that another difficulty in developing a realistic plan is lack of any advance indication of how much state money is likely to be available to finance it.

Kathy English, DelDOT's director of finance, told the council that the department is pinched because its costs of doing business have lagged far behind the rate at which its revenues have grown.  Between 1996 and 2005, the transportation trust fund has grown by 28.9% while the state's general fund budget  has increased by 73.3%, she said.

Moreover, she added, the trust fund, established in the 1980s  primarily to provide financing for capital projects, has been tapped to finance a large chunk of DelDOT's operating budget.

Lee Ann Walling, who represents the governor, said that a taskforce now studying transportation financing is expected to provide recommendations for restructuring it.

"Granted that budget trimming needed to be done. But it needed to be done right, not the way it was done," said Victor Singer, chairman of the New Castle County Planning Board, who spoke during the public comment period. "According to anecdotal evidence, the budget trimming process amounted to running down a list if upcoming projects and cutting, or eliminating, where the cuts were politically desirable until the target was reached.'

Mitchell said it is little wonder that  the general public does not trust DelDOT. "They believe everything is planned behind closed doors. ... The public did not have a word to say about how changes should be made," he said.

2005. All rights reserved.

 

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