ALBANY – If state officials are sincere about fixing problems that have stalled tens of millions of dollars worth of road and bridge rehabilitation work in Western New York, then legislators and industry officials say it will have to be a quick reaction from Albany – as in the next several weeks.
The state’s fiscal year ends March 31, and that’s the deadline for the state to advertise for bids if contracts for the projects are to be awarded.
Word of the delays came to light Thursday at a state transportation hearing when State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat, questioned Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald about why $94 million in projects promised for the region in the 2012 fiscal year have not happened.
The state Department of Transportation puts the dollar amount of projects at a lower figure than Kennedy’s and insists it is up to date on the projects it manages.
Kennedy’s office, with the assistance of a coalition of construction companies and construction unions from Western New York, provided highlights of some of the road and bridge work delayed by bidding and design problems:
• Rehabilitation of three bridges over the Kensington Expressway totaling about $6 million.
• Repaving the Youngmann Highway in Amherst and the Town of Tonawanda, valued at $5 million.
• Repaving the Kensington Expressway, from the Elm/Oak exit in Buffalo to the Harlem Road exit in Cheektowaga, valued at about $9.5 million.
• Replacing the I-190 bridges over Buffalo Avenue in Niagara Falls. A DOT document puts the cost of the work at $7 million, but Kennedy says it would cost $20 million.
• Construction of a “Millennium Parkway” in Dunkirk, worth $5 million.
• Construction of a bridge to carry Routes 5 and 20 over Cattaraugus Creek, a $16 million project.
The stalled work also includes numerous other smaller projects involving road repairs, landscaping and painting bridges.
If history is a guide, the money set aside for the 2012 fiscal year projects will be rolled into next year but counted against any increase that the region might be eligible to receive, lawmakers and industry groups worry.
That means, if the region is eligible for $100 million in the 2013 fiscal year, only $10 million in new projects will be added because $90 million was not spent from the previous year, they say.
And that would only compound the problem the region has faced the past several years when it has not received its share of state money. The region’s share should total about 10 percent of the total state transportation capital spending.
The DOT did not specifically answer questions about what happens to money set aside in the 2012 fiscal year that is not awarded or spent.
But Cuomo administration officials said the money set aside for any delayed projects would not count against what the region would be eligible to receive in the coming year’s allotment of road and bridge construction funding.
The stalled funding comes from two pots: the DOT’s capital account and the NYWorks program, a much-touted effort by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to help spur economic development.
“We look at it as the NYWorks did not work in Region 5,” Alan Pero, president of the Fair Apportionment of Infrastructure Revenue, told lawmakers in a hearing last week, referring to the DOT region number for Western New York.
In a later interview, Pero said unemployment among the area’s road construction workers topped 20 percent during the 2012 season. When both the DOT funding pot and the NYWorks program are added together, he said, the region was promised about $300 million in road construction projects last April.
“If that money had been on the street, we would have been looking for individuals to recruit,” Pero said. His group represents laborers, contractors, engineers, truckers and others involved in road work.
Kennedy got a commitment of sorts from McDonald, the DOT commissioner, to try to earmark the stalled funding by March 31.
Pero was not convinced. “Ms. McDonald reminds me of a white-tailed deer: very elusive,” he said.
State DOT officials say that $37.4 million in projects funded by the state and federal government remain to be awarded from the 2012 fiscal year and that Albany is rushing to get that work in the pipeline before the construction season starts in the spring. It said an additional $40.7 million in Western New York road and bridge projects funded by Washington remain to be awarded.
But DOT officials said those projects are controlled by local governments, including counties and towns, in Western New York.
“The state is completely up to date on the projects it manages and is working to get the full amount of any remaining funds for these projects scheduled and out the door on time and on schedule,” said DOT spokesman Beau Duffy.
The DOT provided a spreadsheet of dozens of projects completed and delayed over the past year; a number of the delayed projects, the state said, were put off for reasons beyond the department’s control. One project, for instance, needed further county approval, another needed to be coordinated with another nearby road project, and a number are on hold because local government “sponsors” of the road or bridge work requested a delay.
Several delayed projects also fit into smaller initiatives, such as bridge painting or joint sealing.
Kennedy said the region’s transportation funding problems go back to the administrations of former Govs. Eliot Spitzer and David A. Paterson, when DOT officials said an internal error led to a $167 million funding shortfall for road projects in Western New York.
He said that the state last spring awarded Western New York $166 million in “core” road project money but that it has only spent $72 million, leaving $94 million to be spent on delayed projects.
“This administration has been working to rectify that past error and to make sure Western New York gets its fair share of funding,” Kennedy said. “We want to hold the folks in DOT accountable that they’re following through with the promised dollars to help get these dollars into road construction and to help put people to work and help public safety.”
Pero said aides to Cuomo last fall acknowledged a “perfect storm of screw-ups” that kept road money from being spent, but he said matters have not improved.
The spending slowdown would have looked worse on paper were it not for one single project, he noted.
Of the $70 million in projects awarded, Pero said, $30 million was for a Route 86 project in Salamanca that was stalled due to a dispute between the state and the Seneca Nation. That was not resolved until the fall, and by the time workers arrived, only preliminary work could be done before the end of the construction season.