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Funds for key highway projects hang in the balance


WASHINGTON, D.C. – Community infrastructure planners took confidence that the Interstate 235 reconstruction project will remain on schedule home from the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s June 11-13 lobbying efforts in the nation’s capital. However, they received a more subtle message from their meetings with Iowa’s congressional delegation and their staffs: They’ll have to rely less on construction and more on technology to solve traffic problems in the foreseeable future.

With deficit spending and an overall atmosphere of fiscal restraint, the Partnership whittled requests and prioritized projects, said Steve Zumbach, the business group’s 2003 chairman. “We’re in a much tighter money situation, there is no doubt,” he said. “That just means efforts like this one are all the more important.”

Kent Sovern, the Partnership’s senior vice president of government and international relations, said he was “encouraged, but not elated” by the response to the group’s transportation agenda.

Sovern is confident Congress will approve the Des Moines International Airport’s request for full funding for federally mandated security expenses, $4 billion for the airport improvement program and $5.75 million for runway rehabilitation, and the Ankeny Regional Airport’s request for $1 million to relocate obstructions.

He’s less optimistic about reauthorization of the ground transportation bill, which he said probably won’t occur this year. “Given the deficit spending, we are not flush like we were last year,” Sovern said. “It’s a very tight budget situation, and though the congressional representatives said we’d done a fine job prioritizing our request, they’re not sure the money will be there to meet it.”

Tom Kane, executive director of the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, shared the concerns voiced by Zumbach and Sovern. “As trust funds become more vulnerable, in the scheme of things, transportation falls way down on the list,” Kane said. “It’s not even on some radar screens. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and homeland security are going to have more priority than how much money we spend on roads.

“The congressional people were cautioning that there are not going to be the large increases in funding there were under the previous transportation bill.”

“What you want to do on this trip is significantly more than what we are able to do,” cautioned Jay Byers, who runs the state office for 3rd District Congressman Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa.

“Resources are nowhere near keeping up with demands,” added E.H. “Ned” Michaler, Boswell’s legislative director. “I’m not just talking about special projects; I’m talking about true infrastructure needs.”

Funding the special project requests alone would require lawmakers to appropriate more money than the Highway Trust Fund allows and Michaler said Partnership delegates should expect only part of them will be approved.

Embedded in legislation in the House is a measure that would effectively increase the gas tax, but with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, not inclined to support it, “I don’t see any way that is going to happen,” Michaler said. “The current bill is dead in the water.”

Grassley is looking at using a bonding mechanism to increase revenue to fund reauthorization of the transportation bill, said Sherry Kuntz, who handles transportation issues for the senator. His proposal wouldn’t be as costly as the House version, but it’s more expensive than what the Bush administration is proposing.

Complicating the issue is talk on Capitol Hill of revamping the allocation formula, which currently lists Iowa as a “recipient” state, meaning that it gets more money from the Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund that it contributes. Donor states argue they’re shortchanged under the allocation formula and are trying to squeeze out more money, Byers said.

Richard Bender, an aide to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who handles transportation issues, noted increasing support for an allocation formula that would favor large states with big metropolitan centers. “It’s immoral to base allocations on lane miles as opposed to what God intended: highway miles,” he said.

In addition to the Partnership’s transportation priorities, the Iowa congressional delegation is getting requests from every metropolitan center in the state. “Every city in Iowa has a highway project they would like funded,” Bender said.

Bender told the delegates that Congress is returning to the era of 1993-2000, when there were no congressional earmarks for priority projects. “In 2001, we burst the dam doing them,” he said, noting that with Harkin on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Grassley on the Senate Finance Committee, Boswell on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and 1st District Congressman Jim Nussle on the House Budget Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, Iowa “tended to get a little more than some people might see as more than our share.”

Kane said some Iowa congressional staff assistants were caught off guard when they found among the pleas congressional earmarks – that is, funding for a specific project – a request of $70 million over four years for the I-235 reconstruction project. The Iowa Department of Transportation has already included the freeway widening project in its five-year plan, but Partnership officials thought getting a federal earmark would free up more money for other priority projects in the metropolitan area. The $70 million was part of $147.2 million in requests for federal funding for Central Iowa highway projects.

“The congressional delegation was somewhat surprised that I-235 was being revisited for more money,” Kane said. “What does this all mean? That’s what we’re still trying to sort out.”

The $430 million project is currently scheduled for completion in 2007 after having been pushed back a year in 2002 due to funding and scheduling difficulties. Des Moines City Councilwoman Christine Hensley acknowledged the funding difficulties, but said completion of the I-235 reconstruction shouldn’t be delayed again. “We waited in line for our turn, and as a result, we’ve seen significant added costs,” she said of the project, originally estimated to cost $330 million and now up to $460 million. “It is critical to the capital city.”

“We need that $70 million,” said West Des Moines City Councilwoman Loretta Sieman, who chairs the area’s Metropolitan Planning Organization. “I know you don’t have it, but we need it, and we need to figure out how to get it.”

Though the MPO represents the transportation priorities of all member governments, all have agreed completion of the I-235 project is the metropolitan area’s top priority.

It’s imperative that the I-235 project, the largest public works project ever funded by the IDOT, remain on schedule, said Scott Dockstader, an IDOT district engineer.

Other state priorities are looming, and that could reduce the amount of money provided to Greater Des Moines, Bender warned. Even with the earmark money available to Grassley and Boswell, it will be difficult to reach the $70 million requested for I-235, he said.

Kane said the strongest message he heard from the congressional delegation was that transportation funding won’t be able to keep up with demands. “Don’t wait for a windfall – that’s what we heard,” he said. “With costs escalating, we have to give some serious thought to how to make the existing system work better and do more with less. Money is so scarce and tight, it makes our jobs harder.”

When construction money isn’t available, some options that carry a lower price tag include intersection improvements, the addition of turning lanes and “intelligent transportation systems” that make better use of cameras, signal coordination and incident management, Kane said.  

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