August 16, 2005

Wilmington Area Planning Council has scheduled a second round of after-the-fact changes to its long-range transportation plan for this and the next two fiscal years. That will reduce proposed spending between now and June 30, 2008, by just over $473 million.

The move comes as transportation secretary Nathan Hayward described himself as "enormously pleased" with a larger-than-expected allocation of federal money.

However, he cautioned that Delaware Department of Transportation's ability to actually receive and spend those additional dollars is by no means certain. "In order to put [them] to work, we have to come up with local matches," he told Delaforum.

To understand how a reputed windfall  is not really a windfall unless the legislature changes its attitude toward transportation financing require a journey through the labyrinth of federal budgeting.

The planning council's role theoretically is to set out a Transportation Improvement Program plan which reflects the public's priorities for highway and other transportation spending. By law, that is the first step toward securing federal support for those projects.

In reality this year, DelDOT as a major component in the executive branch of state government and the General Assembly as the legislative branch have ignored the planning council plan.

After the proposed plan was made public but before it was officially adopted, DelDOT, in response to Governor Ruth Ann Minner's call for economies in proposed state spending, reduced its fiscal year 2006 capital budget request by $202 million or about a third. The council responded by delaying what normally would have been routine official endorsement of an amended plan.

Just before the mid-June deadline for approving a plan, the council's directors rejected its staff's menu of priorities and went along, albeit reluctantly, with what then was expected to be the Assembly's version of authorized capital spending for transportation -- DelDOT's section of what is commonly referred to as the fiscal 2006 'bond bill'.

Before enacting the measure just before adjourning at the end of June, however, the Assembly made some changes.

"The 'bond bill' included a quicker implementation schedule for [Interstate]-95, thus making the state match unavailable for other projects ... included in its prioritized [plan]," the council said in a press statement announcing a proposed set of revisions to the approved plan.

If the plan is amended as now proposed at the directors' meeting in September, the planning council will have approved reducing or eliminating financing for several major projects between now and the end of fiscal 2008.

Tigist Zegeye, the council's executive director, told Delaforum that directors could decide not to approve the amended plan. That would jeopardize the state's receiving any federal money for projects not in the existing one.

She agreed that is not likely to happen. But she said the planning council will hold an information session and workshop-style public hearing after the directors' meeting. Although that would be another after-the-fact event, she said it is intended to "let the public know what is happening [and] to receive their comments."

The proposed amended plan covers the next three fiscal years. Included among projects drawing goose eggs in each of those years are improvements in the Blue Ball and Churchmans Crossing areas; an enlarged interchange between Concord Pike and I-95; work on the I-95-Marsh Road interchange; a new Tyler McConnell Bridge; establishing passenger rail service between Newark and Middletown and improvements to commuter rail service between Wilmington and Newark; rebuilding Philadelphia Pike through Claymont; and sidewalks in Brandywine Hundred.

In keeping with the Assembly's direction, an additional $30.4 million would go this year  into improvements to I-95 between the Maryland border and Basin Road. They include widening the highway through Churchmans Marsh, improving the interchange with Delaware Route 1 and new toll booths.

Hayward told Delaforum that the federal transportation financing bill recently signed into law by President George Bush allocates an average of $158 million in 'formula money'  to Delaware for the current federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and the next three years. That compares to an average of $121 million annually between October 1998 and 2004. The 30.3% increase, he said, is exactly the same as the national average.

'Formula money' is financing that can be applied to any transportation project which complies with federal standards. But, he explained, it comes in specific spending categories and cannot be transferred among categories.

Delaware, Hayward said, is one of the 'donee' states. That means that it gets back more in federal support than it sends to Washington in federal fuel tax collected here. On average over the past four years, the ratio was $1.63 for every dollar collected.

In addition to the increase in its 'formula' money, Delaware also will receive  $124 million in 'earmarks' --  federal support for 15 specified projects. The largest is $46 million for the planned bridge over Indian River Inlet along the coast in Sussex County. There will be $24.5 million for the I-95 projects plus $20 million to build a new interchange connecting I-95 with the Christina Riverfront in Wilmington. The other projects range down to $1 million for a University of Delaware bicycle trail.

Hayward said U.S. Senator Thomas Carper, who sat on the joint congressional conference committee which produced the final version of the bill, was largely responsible for securing that 'extra' money.

Both 'formula' and 'earmark' money come with strings attached. Depending on the nature of the project, the state must put up 10% to 30% of the total cost. Averaged out at about 20%, that amounts to having to come up with an additional $15 million during the next three fiscal years.

Hayward would not speculate on the odds of that happening beyond repeating a previous call for the Assembly to redirect the state's transportation trust fund away from financing DelDOT operations back to paying construction and other capital costs.

© 2005. All rights reserved.

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