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Friday, January 23, 2009

Bill Boynton: Study, editorial on state DOT spending priorities inaccurate

The Union Leader this morning publishes the DOT response to the study "Get Your Shovels Ready" and yesterday's editorial:

The Josiah Bartlett Center report issued Wednesday may have appeared to be a softball right down the middle of the plate for an editorial, but a call to the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT) could have quickly clarified some very basic fundamental errors in the premise of the report that made its conclusions seriously flawed.

(1) All of the road and bridge projects ($220 million) in the NHDOT economic stimulus draft list are priorities within the state's 10-year plan. Author Grant Bosse incorrectly assumed (he didn't call me for clarification) that $58.7 million in "resurfacing pavement reconstruction projects" are not in the plan when in fact they have all been identified by the NHDOT as priorities under the 10-year plan heading of "Interstate Preservation Projects."

(2) All of the road and bridge projects in the draft list are "shovel ready" (design, right-of-way, etc.) and could be acted upon within 120 days as suggested in the federal criteria.

(3) The rail money sought ($310 million) was correctly anticipated by the NHDOT to be available through a separate funding category in the House bill for "rail and transit." It is a huge, incorrect assumption that this money could somehow be available for addressing Red List bridges.

(4) Whether or not you agree editorially with pursuing the rail improvements, the $10 million for the St. Lawrence and Atlantic upgrade in the North Country is in the state's "capital plan," and the $300 million for the upgrade of the "Capital Corridor line" (Lowell-Nashua-Manchester) is a priority for the New Hampshire Rail Authority, which was established in law by the New Hampshire Legislature.

It is very unfortunate that much-needed assistance for transportation infrastructure improvements and preservation in New Hampshire is recklessly characterized in the Union Leader editorial as "the corrupting effect of 'free' money from Washington," especially in light of the facts.

Bill Boynton is public information officer for the state Department of Transportation.

Here is our response:

Our study "Get Your Shovels Ready" gave an accurate report on the differences between the DOT Wish List for transportation stimulus funds and the Ten Year Transportation Improvement Plan.

To address Mr. Boynton's first point, the Ten Year Plan does not specifically mention several of the resurfacing projects on the Wish List. To be fair, the Ten Year Plan does contain $6 million per year for resurfacing projects, for which the DOT projects would qualify. We did not mean to criticize DOT for providing greater detail under this category, and thank them for their work.

We do not question that any of the listed projects would meet the Obama Administration's "Shovel Ready" definition, but many projects are not scheduled for several years, and would not provide public benefits for several more.

Nor do we fault DOT for preparing rail projects in the event that Congress prevents states from using stimulus funds on their top priorities. In fact, we urge Congress to give states greater flexibility so that New Hampshire can fix roads and highways rather than spend "free" money on a lower priority rail project.

Should New Hampshire be forced to "use or lose" federal rail money, it should go towards projects already identified as state priorities, and not funneled into double tracking a rail line that was never included under the Ten Year Plan.

We also don't question that some projects may be priorities for the Rail Authority or other groups. But they have not been stateside priorities, and are not included in the Ten Year Plan. Indeed, the Ten Year Plan includes just over $20 million for the entire project. The DOT Wish List seeks $300 million. That money would be better spent to meet the needs of the Ten Year Plan, should Congress allow it. We don't blame DOT for working under these assumptions, but urge lawmakers to move beyond them.

The Bartlett Center has provided a side by side comparison of transportation priorities. It is up to policy makers if these priorities will be set in Concord, or in Congress.

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