Wednesday, March 04, 2009

TxDOT risks losing $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds

Congressman Slaps TxDOT


Forrest Wilder
The Texas Observer
Copyright 2009

TxDOT must give priority to transportation projects in economically-distressed areas or risk losing $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds, according to a letter [.pdf] sent today to Rep. Jim Dunnam from Congressman James Oberstar, the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

This should settle the feud between Dunnam and TxDOT. On Monday, Dunnam said that TxDOT may have violated federal law by “obligating” $500 million for road and bridge maintenance without regard to the requirements in the stimulus bill. Chris Lippincott shot back that maybe Dunnam didn’t understand the law. From the fairly plain language of the letter it appears Lippincott was wrong.

I understand that questions have recently been raised regarding whether the Texas Department of Transportation is in compliance with Federal law regarding implementation of the Recovery Act. The Recovery Act specifically requires that, in selecting projects within the Federal Highway Administration, Highway Infrastructure Investment program 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 Section 301 of the Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965, as amended.

[bolding mine]

Economically distressed areas are defined as places with per capita incomes of 80 percent or less of the national average or an unemployment rate at least 1 percent higher than the national average, according to the Obserstar letter. Among those priority areas, according to a list provided by Oberstar, are border and East Texas counties - Cameron, Hidalgo, El Paso, Maverick, Polk, Newton, Presidio, Starr, Willacy, Zavala, etc - based on unemployment rates. Many more counties qualify under the income criterion - Bastrop, Chambers, Ector, Hays, and McLennan for example.

TxDOT meets tomorrow to vote on the $1.2 billion list of projects. It’s unclear how the Oberstar letter will affect their vote.

Update: TxDOT spokesman Lippincott said he hadn’t seen the letter but was “confident” that TxDOT was in compliance with federal law. The stimulus bill, he noted, requires that the states also take into account geographic diversity, the speed with which projects can be completed, and the amount of economic impact.

“The law does not order those priorities or give guidance as to how or whether the state should weigh those priorities,” Lippincott said. “If economic distress was the controlling factor there would be no spending in Dallas, Tarrant, Harris, Travis, Bexar, Nueces and several other counties.”

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