Finding enough money to fix roads a problem

Road crews are busy these days fixing tire-thumping potholes and butt-busting frost heaves, as the h

Road crews are busy these days fixing tire-thumping potholes and butt-busting frost heaves, as the highway damage wrought by a severe winter emerges.

Beyond patching, the prime time for highway construction is right around the corner. But counties, towns, cities and villages expect to be doing less reconstruction this year as they cope with the rising costs of gasoline, diesel fuel, asphalt and other materials.

The state’s main highway aid program — one communities rely on to help pay those costs — will be frozen for the fourth consecutive year under the 2011-12 state budget just adopted.

Local highway bosses say they’re glad the $363.1 million appropriation for the Consolidated Highway Improvement Program (CHIPs) isn’t being cut, given the pressures to cut state spending.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling stress as they calculate how to maintain thousands of miles of local roads and bridges — especially after a winter that dug deep into their budgets to pay for salt, sand and snow plowing.

Eric Bowerman, town highway superintendent in Canajoharie, Montgomery County, said, “In essence, by remaining flat for the last three years we have taken a cut because we haven’t kept up with inflation and cost increases. If funding remains the same, we will be able to do less.”

Joseph Ryan, Schenectady County’s director of public works, said, “Could we use more money? Of course we could. I think what everyone finds is that you’re just going to have to prioritize.” Schenectady County, which owns and maintains 250 miles of road, anticipates receiving just under $1.4 million in CHIPs aid this year.

The CHIPs money is distributed to localities using a formula that considers the road mileage each municipality owns, local vehicle registration statistics and estimates of vehicle-miles driven in each community. In general, the money can only be used for capital improvements such as road construction or drainage repairs with a 10-year life expectancy.

Given the funding situation, Saratoga County Public Works Commissioner Joseph C. Ritchey said he’s concerned about having enough money to stay on top of the county’s 360 miles of roads this year.

“If the costs keep going up and the funding remains the same, by definition you get in a hole,” Ritchey said.

Saratoga County for the past 25 years has had a firm commitment to rebuild 20 miles of road per year, but last year Ritchey agreed to spread two years’ reconstruction over three years because of financial pressures. This construction season will be the second year of that program.

Game changer

The county planned to rebuild about 12 miles of road this year, but that was before the March 18 collapse of a section of North Shore Road in Hadley, which will bring a still-undetermined additional cost to the county.

“I am concerned,” Ritchey said. “We see the rising cost of gasoline and diesel, and asphalt is right behind, so that is a concern.”

Saratoga County will be getting $2.25 million in CHIPs money and will put nearly that much of its own money into road reconstruction.

Charlton Supervisor Alan R. Grattidge, chairman of Saratoga County’s Public Works Committee, said, “We’re taking it as a victory that we didn’t get cut, but it means you have to tailor your road program to the funds available.”

The concerns about road maintenance expense are coming at a critical time for state and federal transportation funding.

The state Department of Transportation in 2009 proposed a five-year capital spending plan that included a 40 percent increase in local road and bridge funding. It would have boosted CHIPs funding to $420 million by this year.

But then-Gov. David Paterson rejected the plan immediately as “simply unaffordable given New York’s current fiscal condition.”

The state hasn’t increased CHIPs aid since the 2008-09 budget, dealing with severe revenue losses and upward spending pressures because of the national recession.

Deferred work

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli last November issued a report saying 40 percent of the state’s roads and bridges are substandard or obsolete, and blamed that situation on a state-level focus on short-term rather than long-term planning.

The federal government, meanwhile, has historically paid for the interstate highways, biggest bridges and other large-scale infrastructure — but the feds have been without a long-term transportation improvement program since the last spending bill expired in 2009. Given the competition for limited funds to maintain an aging federal road system — and the tense political atmosphere in Washington — it is unclear when the matter will be taken up by Congress.

In addition to CHIPs, the state has a local aid program called Marchiselli aid that reimburses three-quarters of the local share (usually 20 percent) of federally funded transportation improvements. The Marchiselli program will provide $39.7 million this year — but that program has also been frozen for several years.

The state associations of county and town highway superintendents have both urged the Legislature to increase CHIPs funding, though their appeals were unsuccessful. The associations say more money is needed to head off long-term deterioration of the state’s 112,500 miles of local roads.

Ritchey said, “I’m an infrastructure guy. Obviously, I think it’s vitally important for the future economy that we have good road infrastructure.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo did make one change to CHIPs favored by local governments: He agreed to allow the money to be used to reimburse resurfacing projects that temporarily extend a road’s life. Previously, CHIPs money had to be used for long-term projects.

Ryan said Schenectady County has focused on preventive maintenance to extend road life since 2001, and he welcomes the change.

“If the budget passes allowing preventive maintenance under CHIPs, that would be really helpful,” he said early last week.

While a road’s life can be extended by resurfacing and other maintenance, Ryan acknowledged that eventually all roads need more extensive improvements.

“People need to understand there’s a direct relationship between the dollars spent and the quality of the road,” he said.

CHIPs funding

New York state’s Consolidated Highway Improvement Program for the 2011-12 fiscal year breaks down as follows:

Counties: $127 million

Towns and villages: $127 million

Cities outside New York City: $33.5 million

New York City: $75.5 million

Total: $363.1 million

Capital Region counties:

Albany County: $2,049,366

Fulton County: $864,884

Montgomery County: $1,992,502

Saratoga County: $2.245,668

Schenectady County: $1,377,591

Schoharie County: $1,663,802.

Source: New York State Association of Town Highway Superintendents

Categories: Schenectady County

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