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What you need to know for 01/17/2018

Off the Northway: Transportation panel decides what gets done

Off the Northway: Transportation panel decides what gets done

The Capital District Transportation Committee, maybe the most influential government agency you have

The Capital District Transportation Committee, maybe the most influential government agency you haven’t heard of, has its first new executive director in more than 30 years.

Michael V. Franchini last week took over the committee’s top staff position, replacing John Poorman, a towering figure in transportation planning circles who recently retired.

“I think Mike Franchini is stepping into a very large legacy,” acknowledged Cohoes Mayor John McDonald III, chairman of the CDTC.

The Transportation Committee is one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes government organizations. Working from an office suite on Wolf Road, its staff reviews proposed road, bridge, bus and bike projects in Schenectady, Saratoga, Albany and Rensselaer counties and recommends which ones should receive federal money. The Batchellerville Bridge doesn’t get replaced, the Northway doesn’t get repaved, without its sign-off.

“I have always looked at CDTC as the agency that validates the worthiness of projects,” McDonald said. “It assures there are no ‘bridges to nowhere.’ ”

Recent years have been tough for those who want to plan for future government spending, even on things as vital as safe roads. But it looks like the CDTC can actually start long-term planning again. A bipartisan Congress on Friday passed the first multiyear transportation bill since 2009, at least temporarily setting aside the years of bickering that prevented it from happening sooner.

The lack of a long-term funding plan had meant the CDTC stopped some of its project reviews, but now that will change.

“We’ll be starting a five-year [transportation improvement plan] update in the next month or two,” Franchini said.

Poorman worked 37 years for the CDTC, and had headed the staff since 1981, gaining a national reputation for his ability to articulate how the placement of new roads and bridges affects the way communities evolve, and why buses and bicycle paths are important, too.

Tropical Storm Irene’s historic flooding brought Poorman a new mission. He lives in Schoharie, and quickly became a leader among Schoharie Valley residents trying to organize a recovery effort. In May he retired to devote himself to flood recovery work.

Franchini beat out 10 other finalists in part because he already knows the ropes at CDTC. While commissioner of public works and then director of operations for Albany County, he represented the county on the CDTC’s planning committee. He even chaired the committee, where the detailed project reviews are done in meetings that can drag on for hours, for the last seven years.

So Franchini already knows the challenges involved in finding enough cash to fix century-old streets, and an interstate system that is now 50 years old and battered by more auto and heavy truck traffic than its designers ever imagined.

“When you look at infrastructure right now, not just roads and bridges, there is a huge need for repairs,” Franchini said the other day.

Franchini is a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, with a master’s degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Impressive guy, those who have known him for years say.

He’ll be earning a salary of $112,000.

Ever since the last transportation bill expired, planners like Poorman and Franchini have been muddling along. Congress repeatedly passed temporary

extensions of the old bill, which isn’t the same as funding a new national transportation plan.

Friday afternoon, the House and Senate finally passed a new two-year transportation bill, sending it to President Obama’s desk. There’s little doubt he will sign it.

Funding will still be frozen at current levels. The Capital Region can expect roughly the same $95 million to $100 million per year it’s been getting.

In other words, the bucket is still the same size, even though the water is getting deeper.

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