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Transportation projects face uncertainty


The threat of a veto on a key transportation reauthorization bill is causing the Greater Des Moines Partnership to consider a letter-writing campaign to the White House that a coordinator hopes will be picked up by city councils and chambers of commerce across the state.

During its annual lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., on June 9-11, Partnership members were told that the Bush administration may veto the bill if Congress seeks funding above approximately $260 billion. The Partnership and the Iowa delegation support the Senate version of the bill, which would authorize $318 billion in spending. The measure is now in conference committee to iron out the differences.

The bill includes more than $125 million for highway projects throughout the metro area for the next three fiscal years, including $9.5 million to extend the Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway across southeast Des Moines, and $55 million to accelerate completion of the Interstate 235 reconstruction through downtown Des Moines. The bill would also fund a dozen other earmarked highway projects stretching from Ankeny to southwest Des Moines.

“The reauthorization bill is important to every state, but it’s especially important to Iowa in its efforts to grow,” said Loretta Sieman, a West Des Moines City Councilwoman who coordinated this year’s transportation agenda for the Partnership. “We’ll be working with Congressman (Leonard) Boswell on the letter. We have a list of all the major chambers in the state. I think having Boswell on the House Transportation Committee gives us tremendous insight.We cannot encourage growth and we cannot accept growth without an adequate transportation system.”

Though the Partnership supports the $318 billion funding level that’s been endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, it hasn’t adopted any formal strategy such as a letter-writing campaign “because it hasn’t been discussed at the committee level yet,”  Vetoing the transportation bill would make little sense because the revenues to pay for the projects have already been collected and are sitting in a trust fund dedicated to highway projects, said Boswell, a Democrat.

“There is no rhyme or reason or common sense for that not to go through the process of the conference committee and go over and be signed,” he said. “The need is there, the money is there, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be spent.”

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley says he thinks the bill can get signed by September, which would eliminate the need for a continuing resolution.

“I believe that if we get a bill out of conference, the president will sign it,” Grassley said. He said he doesn’t believe the bill will be held up until after the election, as some are speculating may happen.

“Right now, I think there’s a lot of pressure to get a bill passed,” he said.

Richard Bender, a senior aide to Sen. Tom Harkin, said he’s confident that transportation projects will ultimately receive at least as much funding as last year. “The question is going to be: How big will the growth be?” he said. The likely scenario, however, is that a bill may not be passed until after the election.

Because the reauthorization amount is up in the air, the Iowa Transportation Commission is working on a one-year program rather than approving a five-year plan, said Scott Dockstader, district engineer for the state Department of Transportation’s District 1, which includes 12 Central Iowa counties.

From the standpoint of the critical I-235 project, “the discretionary funds will first and foremost help keep the project on schedule,” Dockstader said. “Secondly, we’re looking at doing some combination of our fiscal year 2006 and 2007 work to allow us to accelerate some funding needed for I-235 going through downtown. By combining those projects and letting them all in 2006, there’s a possibility of putting significant bonuses in the contracts to get those projects done early.”

Tom Kane, executive director of the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, said despite the funding uncertainty, the trip appears to have been successful in terms of connecting with the congressional delegation. This year’s trip was the second consecutive year the Partnership assembled a priority list of transportation projects for the region.

“I think from listening to the comments from the congressional staff, they were pleased with what we brought, and they appreciated us organizing it into one agenda,” Kane said. “Eighteen governments, including three counties and 15 cities, agree with that list, and any one of [the projects] would be a benefit to the metro area.”

For the first time this year, funding requests for trails have joined what had always been a venue for roads, buses and airports, he said. Included in the reauthorization bill is a $5 million appropriation to expedite construction the Principal Riverwalk project downtown.

“Trails have really come to the forefront,” Kane said. “The MPO is really trying to react to that push for trails. I think the talk about the Riverwalk has elevated the importance of trails in the transportation system. … I think it shows that the business community and elected officials believe in this, and that they’re on the same page, that they both will help economic development.”

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