Friday, March 20, 2009

MODOT adopts flawed plan

Yesterday evening in Springfield, the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission (MoDOT) gave approval to their final list of transportation projects to be funded by economic recovery funds. MoDOT estimates it will directly or indirectly support 22,000 jobs. I think there could have been more.

The project package totals $577 million, $52 million more than the $525 million MoDOT was allocated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The department built in additional money in its proposal that assumes it will qualify for redistribution of funds from other states if they become available. It may be ambitious to think that that much money will be returned from states who do not utilize their funds.

I will say that MoDOT’s urgency is well placed. The bill, approved by Congress, dictated that 50 percent of the stimulus funds must be obligated by June 30 (90 days), and all money must be obligated by March 2, 2010.

In addition, the allocations became even more complex because projects also had to meet all federal regulations, including environmental clearances, contracting requirements and air quality rules.

But there were additional requirements that MoDOT seems to have read as merely suggestions. The release from MoDOT that came out last night reads:

“Once those requirements were met, ARRA said consideration should be given to projects that could be completed within three years. It also said consideration should be given to projects that would maximize job creation and economic benefit. Additionally, it said that improvements located in economically distressed areas should be considered.”

Actually, the bill does not just require “consideration” it requires that “priority” be given to projects that can be completed in three years and are located in economically distressed areas. (P.L. 111-5, pages 92-93 reads: “that in selecting projects to be carried out with funds appropriated under this heading, priority shall be given to projects that are projected for completion within a 3-year time frame, and are located in economically distressed areas as defined by section 301 of the Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965.”)
Giving priority and merely considering are very different things.

It is yet to be determined if MoDOT’s adopted plan violates the letter of the law, but it certainly violates the spirit of the law. Currently, of the $577 million MoDOT has discretion in programming, $199 million is being spent in 14 'non-distressed' counties. The other 100 'distressed' counties are sharing the remaining funds. If Missouri doesn’t follow the intent of the law, a couple of concerns arise. The Secretary of Transportation could say they need to redraw the plan which will make it hard to get the money out in 90 days. But the underlying concern is that if money doesn’t go to the parts of the state most in need the stimulus may not work.

For all the games and pontificating on this issue on both sides of the aisle, we all need the stimulus to work or we'll be staring at 10-plus-percent unemployment. Today MARC announced we are already at 8.2% unemployment. That is my main concern. Yes, I want MoDOT to follow the law and be fair and equitable, but more than that, the money should be spent where it is needed most because I want it to actually stimulate the economy as it is designed.

The plan announced yesterday represents some progress. When the initial list was released, Missouri's Fifth District was slated to receive $44 million in stimulus dollars for two major projects. Since I raised concerns about intent and equity, the district is up to $69 million and five major projects. It is progress, but I think distressed areas, like ours, should still be getting more and I am making that case.

There are very few things I would ever say we have in common with St.Louis — they have annoying sports teams, sub-par barbeque and a foreign owned beer-maker. However, on the issue of distressed areas being shortchanged in favor of non-distressed with stimulus money we are in agreement. Since Mayor Slay took to the airwaves his city's allocation has gone up by $12 million and my complaints have led to $25 million more for us. I cannot speak for Mayor Slay, but I am not done fighting.

My staff and I have attended meetings and spoken with MoDOT multiple times during their process leading to this point. When asked to give input, we have raised our concerns, among them is at first read it does not appear that appropriate priority has been given to distressed areas or job creation as directed by the law.

Let me be crystal clear. It is not my money and it is not MoDOT’s money. It is your money. I am concerned the people I represent are not seeing their federal tax dollars being used for their benefit. If the state of Missouri is going to gain public money to stimulate the economy the money should be used in the way it was originally prescribed to fulfill the obligation they assumed by accepting it.

Our economic crisis is not a game and the actions of MoDOT do not serve the people of Missouri or my district well. Wednesday, I met with Attorney General Holder to discuss this matter and will be meeting with Secretary of Transportation LaHood next week.