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New Cash, Not New Projects in Stimulus

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By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009

Regional transportation officials anticipate a windfall from the planned federal stimulus package that would effectively double this year's federal spending on roads and rail in the region, officials said yesterday.

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State officials did not release detailed project lists, but they estimated that Virginia would receive $700 million to $800 million; Maryland $600 million to $700 million; and the District $120 million. Under the transit component of the House stimulus bill, Metro would receive $315 million.

Despite national concerns that the stimulus plan shortchanges transportation, regional officials expect that the Washington area would fare well under the House and Senate proposals. Under the House spending formula, for example, 25 percent of the federal dollars would go to urban areas such as the Washington region. The other 75 percent would be distributed by state transportation officials. Both Northern Virginia and the District's Maryland suburbs are major population centers and could expect a significant share of the statewide spending, officials said.

"I'm hopeful," said Chris Zimmerman, chairman of the Metro board of directors and former head of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. The NVTA has a list of $100 million worth of "shovel-ready" projects that would go a long way toward unclogging bottlenecks in the region, he said.

Any projects paid for with stimulus money would first have to go through the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, where officials said at a meeting yesterday that regional spending would focus on the maintenance and rehabilitation of roadways, bridges and transit systems and the funding of bus, bicycle and pedestrian projects. Major new projects, such as the Purple Line, would have to wait.

"There's just not time to get the approvals done" on big new projects, said Ronald Kirby, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "But that is not a problem, since there is a backlog of projects that are ready to be implemented quickly. We're not being forced to spend money on things we don't need."

Kirby said the Senate stimulus bill, which is expected to be voted on next week, contains $5.5 billion that would be distributed competitively. He said if that money makes it into the final legislation, it could be a source for funding significant new projects such as the light-rail Purple Line in suburban Maryland.

Although the stimulus funds might sound like a lot of money, they fall far short of the region's needs. Washington has the second-worst traffic in the country, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Only Los Angeles has worse.

Metro, for example, has a $530 million wish list that includes renovations to crumbling station platforms and bus garages and additional chemical attack sensors. And that doesn't include money for the new 7000 series rail car, which is several years away.

Citing the worsening economy and dismal revenue picture, Virginia recently cut $2.2 billion worth of projects from its six-year transportation plan; Maryland cut $2.1 billion from its program.

But planners said the stimulus money won't simply replace the eliminated funds. Many of the projects removed from the states' spending plans are far from complete and would not satisfy federal requirements for quick spending.

Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said stimulus funds would not be used for new projects. The money would instead go to fix roads and bridges, restoring about 30 percent of the cut projects. Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer said state priorities would be pavement and bridge replacement and paying for some of the projects delayed during the recent cuts.

Officials said distributing transportation funding by formula eliminates congressional earmarks that fund projects based on political clout rather than merit. But some critics said they do not trust states to spend the money wisely.

"On the one hand, they decided not to earmark, but they have given authority to the state departments of transportation," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "I don't trust the state DOTs not to spend it on sprawl-inducing highway projects that got us into the mess we're in."


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