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
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
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.