"The Federal Highway Administration must approve the projects recommended by TxDOT."
By APRIL CASTRO
The Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas — Roads and bridges projects adopted by the Texas Department of Transportation could be denied federal approval for not giving priority to economically distressed areas as mandated by the massive economic stimulus law, a top federal official said Wednesday.
Lawmakers earlier this week questioned whether the state had complied with the requirement. The agency's executive director, Amadeo Saenz, said economically distressed areas were not a factor in deciding which roads and bridge maintenance projects would get chunks of the $500 million in stimulus money.
In a letter Wednesday, U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minnesota, chairman of the congressional Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said the government must ensure transportation spending meet all requirements, "including giving priority to economically distressed areas."
TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said he was confident the agency was complying with all requirements of the economic stimulus bill, including attention to communities that are economically distressed.
The state transportation department is scheduled to approve more projects Thursday receiving the bulk of the state's stimulus money — $1.2 billion. In a list of proposed projects released last week, TxDOT said economic distress was a factor in selecting the remaining projects.
State Rep. Jim Dunnam, chairman of the House Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding, raised the question during a committee hearing this week.
In his letter to Dunnam, Oberstar confirmed the requirement.
"The Recovery Act specifically requires that, in selecting projects ... to be carried out with funds apportioned under the Recovery Act, states give priority to projects that are located in economically distressed areas," as defined by federal law, Oberstar wrote. He said the Federal Highway Administration must approve the projects recommended by TxDOT.
Moments after Dunnam raised the concerns on Monday, Lippincott suggested he did not fully understand the legislation and said the department complied with the law.
"I'm not sure Representative Dunnam understands what the law says," Lippincott said. "Federal law can be complicated."
Federal law defines economically distressed areas as those with a per capita income of 80 percent or less than the national average or an unemployment rate of 1 percent greater than the national average.
About $17 billion of Obama's economic stimulus package is headed for Texas, some of it helping to fill gaps that otherwise would have strained the two-year state budget and its Rainy Day Fund savings account. Officials are still trying to figure out how and where to spend it, but fears of deep cuts and a looming future deficit have all but faded.
In transportation funding, Texas is getting $2.25 billion from the stimulus, but transportation officials say the state's needs are far greater.
© 2009 The Associated Press: www.ap.org
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