Friday, November 14, 2008

East Bay transportation projects could see cash infusion

Rep. Ellen Tauscher, the senior Californian on the House Transportation Committee, has asked East Bay transportation officials to compile a list of highway and transit projects ready to go in the event Congress includes funding in another stimulus package.

The idea is to bolster projects that could stall as their other sources of cash dry up in the economic drought. It would also generate high-paying construction jobs.

"The situation is extreme," said Tauscher, D-Alamo. "We need to look at stimulative funding that will push federal money forward to mitigate the loss of sales tax and state transportation dollars that may not materialize."

Most communities pay for road and transit projects through a complex mix of local, state and federal sources.

Contra Costa and Alameda counties have a local transportation sales tax but the agencies expect to see less money as consumer spending slows.

At the same time, the state is seriously looking at diverting road and transit dollars into its yawning deficit.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has asked for similar information statewide as Caltrans looks for ways to spend voter-approved transportation bond money sooner rather than later.

In Contra Costa and Alameda counties, officials point to a handful of projects that could — with a quick cash boost — break ground in a few months or a year.

They include the ever-present need for street repairs plus the Highway 4 bypass, AdvertisementInterstate 580 carpool lanes and Interstate 80 corridor upgrades.

Eligible transit projects include the Richmond BART parking garage and the Hercules intermodal station.

"I think Ellen is on the right track," said Dennis Fay, executive director of the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency. "The sooner you spend the money, the less you pay in inflation costs and more you have available to spend on other projects."

The fastest way to "put money on the ground is street maintenance," said Bob McCleary, executive director of the Contra Costa County Transportation Authority. "If you are rehabilitating what is there, it is pretty fast and you can put it out there in 60 to 120 days."

Several segments of the Highway 4 bypass in eastern Contra Costa County could benefit, McCleary said. Its funding is largely based on fees levied against new home construction, which has all but stopped.

One segment remains off-limits to trucks because the project lacks the $3 million to $4 million needed for a final pavement overlay that would allow its surface to withstand heavy traffic.

Also on the bypass, the Sand Creek interchange improvements and a widening project — estimated to cost around $54 million — could also go to bid in the spring if money is made available, McCleary said.

The introduction of federal dollars into the Highway 4 bypass would require a waiver of the terms of the National Environmental Protection Act, McCleary said. The project has met California's more stringent environmental laws but did not require federal review.

It is unclear when Congress will act.

Democratic leaders have called for a lame-duck stimulus package but there has been little enthusiasm from President George W. Bush's administration.

Next year, however, Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the national transportation spending plan. Tauscher said she and other lawmakers are looking at whether they could advance federal dollars before adoption of the full bill.

"I will be sending a letter to (House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn.) once we complete the analysis and offer suggestions on how we can fast-track projects," she said.

At the state level, the news for transportation funding is mixed.

Schwarzenegger has called for the acceleration of projects in the $19.9 billion voter-approved bond in 2006.

But he has also proposed permanently diverting a share of tax dollars away from transit despite two state measures where voters said they wanted most fuel sales taxes to be spent on transportation.

Neither measure captured the "spillover" fund — the difference between the proceeds of a 5 percent state sales tax on all goods except gasoline and 4-3/4 percent sales tax on all taxable goods. The governor has already taken $3 billion from the fund.

"These proposals to advance bond money, I'm all for it," said Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. "But to do it hand-in-glove with taking billions more dollars from transit is a serious problem."

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