With roads and bridges crumbling all over the nation, earmarking federal funds for projects such as the $230 million “bridge to nowhere” in rural Alaska makes little sense. Also questionable is dedicating $800,000 toward a plan to enclose a 1.5-mile-long, 300-foot-wide stretch of the Eisenhower Expressway just outside Chicago. The project, which aims to add park space in Oak Park, Ill., may never happen because the final tab for its construction threatens to run more than $150 million. So, the $800,000 in federal money likely will not be used there or anywhere.

Providing money for such impractical projects is what Alaska Congressman Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, did with passage of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) signed into law in August. The federal highway transportation bill, which reauthorized the Transportation Efficiency Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), serves as a continuation of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.

The original legislation assigned states more flexibility in determining solutions to their transportation needs. But while third generation SAFETEA-LU boasts the nation's largest transportation package — $286.4 billion for federal highway, transit and safety programs through 2009 — county engineers involved with maintaining transportation networks insist that the legislation may not preserve the same flexibility.

“It's bigger, larger by over 38 percent,” says Anthony Giancola, executive director of the Washington-based National Association of County Engineers. “Does that mean local government can expect to get 38 percent more funds in its distribution formula?” Giancola says that is not likely, and, worse, the money going toward earmarked projects is subtracted from state allocations. Lawmakers who nab federal funds for their home turfs may feel proud in serving their constituencies, but, unfortunately, such projects undermine the decision-making authority of local and state governments and sap funding for other, more necessary projects.

SAFETEA-LU contains nearly 6,400 special projects totaling $24 billion — about nine percent of the total guaranteed funding — according to the New York-based Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an alliance of public interest, transit advocacy, planning and environmental organizations in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut metropolitan region. New York State received the second highest number of special projects, with 494 totaling $990 million. While the projects may serve the state's urban areas with road upgrades and rail and mass transit projects, in other areas of the state, bridges and roads will suffer because of a lack of attention.

New York State will apply 90 percent of its federal funding to 15 percent of its roads. The roads are mostly federal ones in urban areas, according to Tim Von Neida, commissioner of public works for Chemung County, N.Y. Counties — which maintain the remaining 85 percent of the state's roads — will receive only 10 percent of the federal funding.

In Chemung County, where some roads are more than 100 years old and many bridges need repair, SAFETEA-LU does not hold a great deal of promise. “We understand that there should be a shared cost with other transportation needs,” Von Neida says, “but we need more of those federal funds designed for local roads. The present system makes us compete for the money. We are not getting our fair share.”

Money rolls down hill

The Federal Highway Administration acts as a steward in dispensing federal transportation funds to states, based on population density, traffic and road mileage. Individual states then have their own formulas for allocating money to county and local governments.

State allocation formulas dramatically affect how equitably roads are maintained throughout individual states, along with other factors such as channels of cooperation among local governments, county and state departments of transportation, and state constitutional protections of transportation funding. Because New York's constitution does not protect transportation funding, highway funds have at times been placed in a general fund and dispensed for other mandated purposes such as public safety and public welfare programs.

Other states have constitutional protections for transportation funding, although that has not always been the case for at least one state. In 1996, for instance, Michigan amended its formula to protect funding for local roads, bridges and safety, with 75 percent going to state roads and 25 percent guaranteed for maintaining local roads. “We have assurances that as funds are added, the locals will be able to share in those additional funds,” says John Niemela, executive director of the County Road Association of Michigan.

But the 75/25 split in favor of state-maintained roads makes little sense when considering that more than 75 percent of Michigan's 120,000 miles of roads are local, he says. Even so, federal lawmakers assigned 3 percent of SAFETEA-LU's earmarked projects to Michigan, and local agencies within the state seem to have fared better this time around, Niemela says.

The result of designated projects can be good or bad, he says. While more money goes into the roads with earmarked projects, spending flexibility is lost for other much-needed projects. “If Congress selects a project, it's seen as pork barrel, and it's unfortunate because some are really needed, but I still think most engineers would prefer to see the funds in the pot and distributed according to [state] formula,” Niemela says.

Minnesota's formula assigns 62 percent of funding to the state, 29 percent to counties and 9 percent to municipalities. “It's fair in the way it's distributed,” says Colleen Landkamer, commissioner for Blue Earth County and president-elect of the Washington-based National Association of Counties.

The regional approach

How fairly remaining non-earmarked funds are distributed still depends more than anything on involvement at the county and local level. Using regional Area Transportation Partnerships (ATPs) to gain broader input for project ranking and selection, Minnesota is among only a handful of states that responded to the original Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act's directive to give states more flexibility by decentralizing its decision making. The state's ATP members include representatives from the state Department of Transportation, a regional development commission, counties, cities with more than 5,000 residents, and a regional transit authority. “The ATPs have been a real positive thing, by bringing state and local people together with DOT and staff and others who make decisions for the area,” Landkamer says.

Among other factors that help assure fair distribution of federal transportation funds at the state and local level are the training and political clout of county engineers. Engineers with solid credentials and strong political support fare best in working with state departments of transportation, regional planning agencies and other groups such as the ATPs that assign priority to projects.

Most states require county engineers, who are often appointed by local lawmakers, to be licensed as professional engineers. Ohio, however, positions its county engineers to hold more sway. The state requires them to maintain dual licenses as professional engineers and surveyors, and they must campaign and be elected for the position of county engineer.

“While most of them do not like being politicians, they like the latitude that comes with decision making,” says Glenn Sprowls, executive director of the Columbus, Ohio-based County Engineers Association of Ohio. “We're the best model structure in the country,” because distribution of funds is more equitable throughout the state.

Still, Ohio — like most other states — actually needs five to six times what it receives to maintain its roads and bridges, Sprowls says. The lack of resources has caused the state to close almost 2,000 bridges. Many roads have detoured or become dead ends as a result.

Donor and recipient states

Federal transportation funds are generated primarily from federal fuel taxes. States with ports and densely populated urban areas generally see far more traffic than others, so they generate more federal fuel tax dollars. In some cases, for every dollar the states pay in federal taxes, they may receive only 88 cents in federal highway funding. The balance from so-called “donor” states goes to help “recipient” states that cannot generate enough fuel tax dollars to cover their needs. California and Michigan are donor states because their outward flow of federal gas taxes exceeds federal transportation funds flowing in.

In many cases, the recipient states are sparsely populated with minimal traffic, as is Alaska. In other cases, a recipient state, such as New York, may be highly populated and generate a large amount of federal dollars, but an aging infrastructure or other needs may outstrip the state's revenue from federal gas taxes.

While SAFETEA-LU does not level the playing field entirely, now donor states will be getting a better deal through the new Equity Bonus Program. Under TEA-21, California received 90.5 cents for every dollar paid in taxes. Under the new legislation, it will receive 92 cents. Likewise, Michigan, in the next five years, will work up to 92.5 cents instead of 88 cents per dollar.

Even with those increases, some county engineers still complain that their states have unique concerns and expenses not always addressed by federal or even local funding formulas. For example, because of potential earthquakes, California's bridges are required to maintain additional flexibility, which requires the expenses of supplemental engineering analysis and seismic retrofitting.

Meanwhile, Oregon's rural roads receive heavy use because of farming. The state also supports a high percentage of untaxed federal land. “The National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have several roads in the system, but they don't pay taxes,” says Jon Oshel, county road program manager for the Salem, Ore.-based Association of Oregon Counties.

For all the funding gaps that SAFETEA-LU cannot address, the legislation still offers some new approaches to maintaining the nation's transportation network. States are given increased flexibility in tolling, managing congestion and financing infrastructure improvements. Under the new Interstate System Construction Toll Pilot Program, states can collect tolls to build interstate highways. The program is limited to three projects nationwide, but several states may participate in a continuous road project.

Safety program funded

According to Tony Kane, director of engineering and technical services for the Washington-based American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials, surface transportation also will benefit from a number of new programs. Among those is the High Risk Rural Roads Safety program, which provides $90 million a year to help states improve dangerous two-lane roads in rural areas. The High Risk Rural Roads Safety package also supports establishing safe pedestrian and bicycle routes to schools, seatbelt enforcement and sobriety programs. In addition, states will be required to track and annually publish the top 5 percent of their roads with the highest numbers of fatalities.

The federal bridge program also has been altered to remove the old 35-percent maximum that states may spend on bridges, allowing them now to spend whatever is necessary. “This was a major addition to the legislation,” Kane says.

Several aspects of the transportation legislation, on the surface at least, bode well for the environment and communities. A new environmental review process will apply to highways, transit and multimodal projects to give more state, local and tribal agencies a formal role in the environmental approval process. The anticipated result is that local parties will have more input in selecting projects that better serve the needs of the region, says Bob Fogel, senior legislative director for the Washington-based National Association of Counties. The new environmental review process streamlines permitting as well.

Also, mass transit received a 46-percent boost over the previous bill, helping states with large urban centers and established mass transit ridership such as Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, California and Maryland. That is especially important for relieving road congestion and curbing pollution, Kane says.

“The biggest challenge for the country and for the population is to make sure that public works infrastructure is adequately funded to meet the needs [of living] in higher density areas,” says Don LaBelle, public works director for Alameda County, Calif. “If you have [transportation] systems that are not well funded, you will lose opportunities and the better paying jobs.”

While SAFETEA-LU may not cover every base, it takes states and local governments beyond the limits of previous legislation. “Like all programs, not everybody gets back the same [in federal funding], but it's still important that there's a little bit more [money this time around],” Fogel says.

Susan DeGrane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.