Feds short of disaster funds to rebuild roads
by Daniel C. Vock, Stateline staff writer

WASHINGTON, D.C.
November 14, 2011 1:05pm
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•  California owed $433 Million

•  Some of the state’s reimbursement requests unpaid since 1983


It has been three months since Tropical Storm Irene washed out roads all across Vermont, but in the town of Roxbury, it is still difficult to get around. Two bridges on the main road through the town of 700 are still out, and are not expected to be repaired until the middle of December.

In the meantime, drivers must use back roads to get to the nearby town of Randolph, a mild inconvenience now that could become a major issue as winter settles in.

Shawn Neun, chairman of the Roxbury select board, says snow would make using back roads “more hazardous, and it would just make it (take) longer.”

Vermont officials estimate that it will take $175 million to $250 million in total to repair the damage from Irene. That is more than a third of what the state planned to spend on all transportation projects this year. Thanks to a presidential disaster declaration, the federal government will pick up a large share of that tab. But Vermont’s money has been slow in coming.

That is because 2011 has set a record for the number of declared disasters in a year: Some 39 states are waiting for money to help rebuild their disaster-damaged roads. The requests are stacking up. The Federal Highway Administration now has a backlog of more than $2 billion in requests, or 20 times the amount of money Congress sets aside every year for the agency’s Emergency Relief program.

California, for example, is owed $433.8 million for disaster-related road repairs, according to the Office of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy.

For states struggling with budget problems, the backlog is yet another fiscal headache. It could delay repairs to damaged infrastructure, and it has already pushed back timelines on other projects. If nothing else, it means state officials must use creative approaches to ensure there is enough money to fix the roads. “States do get reimbursed,” says Nancy Singer, an agency spokeswoman. “But it may take some time.”

That time can stretch into years. States must wait to finish their construction projects before asking for the federal money. Then, the backlog prolongs the process. For example, Washington State wasn’t paid until this spring for highway repairs made after storms that hit back in 2006 and 2007.

Reducing the backlog is up to Congress, where fights over government spending, including expenditures for disaster relief, have become especially heated. The U.S. Senate included $1.9 billion to reduce the backlog in a transportation spending bill it passed earlier this month, but the version that cleared the U.S. House does not include the money. A conference committee will try to iron out the differences and determine whether more emergency relief for states rebuilding efforts will be included.

The Vermont delegation is among those pushing hardest for extra funds.

“These roadways are critical to distributing aid, rebuilding our economy and serving as lifelines to small communities,” U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, recently told his colleagues on the Senate floor. “It is of the utmost importance that federal aid reaches Vermont sooner rather than later, as our winters can be extremely harsh, making these rebuilding efforts nearly impossible for much of the year.”

Finding money

North Dakota has run an even larger tab with the federal government. This spring, the state experienced flooding that Steve Salwei, from the North Dakota Department of Transportation, calls “one of the largest natural disasters that we have ever experienced.” Mr. Salwei, the agency’s transportation programs director, says the bill for damages to state roads this year is more than half a billion dollars.

Of that, the federal government owes North Dakota $424 million, the most owed to any state other than California, according to an analysis from Leahy’s office. California, the analysis shows, is owed $434 million for road damage stemming from storms, landslides and an earthquake, going back to 1983.

North Dakota is uniquely positioned to weather the wait for the federal funds. North Dakota is the only state with a state bank, and it is paying for repairs by taking out loans from it. Lawmakers initially gave the Department of Transportation the authority to borrow $120 million; last week, the legislature moved a bill to let the agency borrow $80 million more.

The agency is focusing on temporary fixes for now. “The permanent repairs we have not gone back and done yet,” Mr. Salwei says. “We’re waiting on those, holding off as long as we can.”

In Vermont, the federal backlog forced transportation officials to shuffle money around to pay for repairs. The state is redirecting federal money it receives for normal road projects toward more urgent needs, says Lenny LeBlanc, the director of finance and administration at the Vermont Agency of Transportation. Already, the state has put on hold plans to repair bridges on interstate highways in the towns of Milton and Windsor. Le Blanc says more projects could be delayed if the federal money does not come through soon.

Asking for more

Mr. LeBlanc says Vermont’s biggest need from Congress is not to speed up payments — although that is a major concern. More important, he says, is that Congress lift a $100 million cap on how much states can receive per disaster. Vermont’s damages from Irene alone far exceed that amount.

Congress has lifted the cap on reimbursements previously, for events such as Hurricane Katrina and the tornadoes that struck the South this spring.

Vermont officials also worry that the onset of winter will impact their ability to get road repairs done in time to get reimbursed under existing federal rules. The federal government will pick up the entire tab for emergency repairs for only six months after a disaster. After that, the reimbursement is for 80 percent of the costs. Vermont wants Congress to make an exception to that rule.

“Because winter is approaching,” Mr. LeBlanc explains, “we do anticipate that we may have to either redo some work that we have already done or do some emergency work that still needs to be done when the next construction season arrives next spring. That would be beyond the 180-day limit for the 100 percent funding.”

Finally, Vermont officials want the federal government to cover the entire cost of permanent repairs — not just temporary fixes — if the cost of those repairs is twice the amount the state otherwise receives for highway funding.

All of those provisions were included in the Senate version of the transportation spending bill.

For the residents of Roxbury, Mr. Neun says, patience for the state and federal government has limits. “We can get in and out. That’s all anyone cares about now,” he says. “But I can guarantee you, come springtime or summer time, if the roads aren’t done, that’s what we’re going to hear about.”

"Stateline.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States that reports and analyzes trends in state policy."


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