LI road funds stuck in political gridlock

by SARAH CRICHTON, Newsday
May 27, 2012

Funding for hundreds of millions of dollars in Long Island road safety improvements and bridge repairs is hung up due to political gridlock over reauthorizing federal transportation legislation. 

Across the country, state departments of transportation are waiting on Congress to pass a long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill that would unlock much-needed funds for infrastructure investment and highway safety measures. 

The last bipartisan legislation that fully funded national highways expired in 2009. Since then there have been nine short-term extensions of between two and six months in length, the latest of which expires June 30. 

In New York, every project in the state DOT's capital program is financed 80 percent by federal funding, and uncertainty about the flow of money hampers planning and design, officials say. 

"It ties our hands in the inability to move these projects forward," state DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald said. "We don't have a high degree of certainty as to what our dollars will be, and it's very difficult to plan long-term projects, particularly those that would be of benefit for economic development." 

On Long Island, bridge replacements over state parkways or the Long Island Expressway in both Nassau and Suffolk worth more than $25 million apiece are among projects awaiting funding. One of the Island's busiest intersections, Route 110 and Jericho Turnpike in Huntington has been earmarked for $6.2 million in safety improvements but the earliest that's slated to begin is fall 2017.

Many Long Island projects that have been the beneficiary of federal funds in the past -- such as Route 110 corridor improvements in Huntington -- directly benefit local business and job creation, McDonald said. 

As it is, federal short-term funding forces the state to focus priorities on preservation of existing roadways and bridges, though in that goal too it's fallen behind, according to Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors' Association. 

Standing before a badly pitted stretch of Jericho Turnpike in Oyster Bay Friday, Herbst said the DOT had been forced to abandon its 12-year paving cycle "because of the uncertainty" so that ultimately repaving costs taxpayers more as roads deteriorate further. 

"The most important thing we can do is preserve the roads we have, and we're not able to do even that because the federal dollars aren't there," said the former five-term Republican assemblyman from Hicksville. 

He and Rep. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills) said the stalled legislation hurt contractors' business and jobs. Passage of the bill would put people to work, reduce gas costs and make drivers safer, they said.

Frank Lizza, general manager of Hicksville-based Intercounty Paving Associates, said his company employs up to 500 people at maximum but currently has just 200 workers. 

Israel cited U.S. Treasury figures that show traffic congestion costs drivers more than $100 billion annually in wasted fuel and lost time and noted too many Americans would sit in gridlock this holiday weekend wondering where their tax dollars are going. 

"To the people in Washington who don't believe we should be in the business of road-building, I say, 'Who should pay -- the middle-class families of Nassau and Suffolk stuck in traffic burning fuel an their own dollars?' " said Israel, urging Congress to pass the legislation. 

The Senate has passed a measure, but the legislation is still held up in the House of Representatives, which has only 10 legislative days left before the June 30 deadline to address the issue, according to Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), who serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and is a member of the conference committee trying to cobble together a deal between the House and Senate. 

Bishop spoke Friday with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the conference committee, and said he was hopeful progress could be made by June 4. "It's vital we get a multiyear, robust surface transportation bill -- it's sad to say, but this is the one shot at passing a jobs bill that this session of Congress has," he said. 

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