Friday, March 06, 2009

Missed opportunities

We're no big fans of the federal stimulus bill, which promises to do more for field mice in California or commuters between the Vegas casinos and Disneyland than for the federal economy, but we do subscribe to the theory that roads are one of the key things for which governments should be responsible. The Constitution even gives federal authority to building and maintaining them. Does the phrase "post offices and post roads" mean anything?

So we're not going to complain about the inclusion of transportation projects in the stimulus package, especially since declining gas consumption back when gas was ridiculously overpriced caused cuts in state road fund budgets.

But we do lament Kentucky's many missed opportunities to make use of the stimulus money, due to some short-sighted manipulation of the Six-Year Road Plan last year by the General Assembly and Joe Prather's Transportation Cabinet.

Half of the stimulus money earmarked for road projects must be spent within 120 days on projects that are, to use the popular vernacular, "shovel-ready." This means projects for which design has been completed, right-of-way purchased, and utilities moved out of the way. All those tasks must be included in, and funded through, the Six-Year Plan prior to being let for bids and real dirt-moving work commencing.

The trouble is, the Beshear administration removed many projects from the Six-Year Plan last year, saying the state had no money for them. This included design, right-of-way purchase and utility relocation on many projects that had been pushed by Gov. Ernie Fletcher and his Democrat predecessors for several years. In addition, several other projects were scaled back under what a couple of now-departed Beshear administration Transportation engineers touted as "practical design."

Without their inclusion in the road plan, preliminary work stopped on many of these long-promised projects. That left them begging when stimulus money was allocated and assigned to "shovel-ready" projects. Had those projects been included in the road plan as they had been in previous years, more of them could have been "shovel-ready" or even closer.

It's been a political reality for years that the road plan is, in large part, a "wish list." Politicians could point to a project's inclusion and advancement in the Six-Year Plan as proof that progress was being made, whether or not any work was actually being done. Just getting some of these projects included in the plan, even if actual construction was a decade or two in the future, was an accomplishment to be pointed at with pride. But a project's inclusion in the plan meant that a commitment had been made to move it forward.

Beshear and Prather point to the current incarnation of the plan, which ran into some legal challenges last year over the timeliness of its passage and whether projects could be funded outside the normal budgetary process, as being a more realistic overview of what roads can and will be built, instead of the wish list they claim the plan had become. But what's really realistic is that their gutting of the plan last year probably cost some communities projects that could have gotten done with stimulus money.

Some of the road projects are no-brainers, such as finishing a road in Floyd County where most of the grade work and bridges had been completed, but was dropped during the Fletcher administration because of a supposed lack of funding.

But we still lament what could have been, had Beshear and Prather not been so short-sighted. Perhaps those communities with projects that were cut or reduced in scope should remember that when 2011 rolls around.

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