Tuesday, November 8, 2011

State Absconds With $15M in Local Transportation Funds

Posted By on Tue, Nov 8, 2011 at 1:37 PM

At last week's meeting of the Humboldt County Association of Governments (HCAOG), Caltrans Project Manager Kim Floyd shocked some big-time local decision-makers. She told the assembled League of Extraordinary Officials that, back in June, the state repossessed roughly $15 million in transportation funds that had been slated for safety and maintenance work along the Hwy. 101 corridor between Eureka and Arcata.

County Supervisor Mark Lovelace (who attended the meeting but is not an HCAOG board member) said this was the first he'd heard about the missing money. Humboldt County Director of Public Works Tom Mattson said he, too, was taken by surprise.

In a phone conversation yesterday, Floyd explained that the $15 million had been set aside back around 2000 through the State Highway Operation and Protection Program (SHOPP). It was supposed to finance safety improvements between Eureka and Arcata, including repaving, bridge replacements, tide-gate replacements, new lighting and more. Eleven years later, that work hadn't started, and with so many other transportation projects shovel-ready around the state, officials at Caltrans headquarters in Sacramento took the money back. And there's no guarantee that we'll ever see it again.

Why was the project delayed so long? In part because it was hitched to another project along the same stretch of road: the Eureka-Arcata Route 101 Corridor Improvement project. You've probably heard about that one. It aims to install a traffic signal at Jacobs Ave. and an overpass at the Indianola cutoff, among other modifications to the six highway intersections between the two cities.

Rather than perform separate environmental impact studies, Caltrans and HCAOG opted to combine the two projects in hopes of streamlining the permitting process. Now, that plan seems to have backfired. And the County Board of Supervisors is thinking twice about whether local governments should authorize the funds for the surviving half of those conjoined projects (close to $24 million).

Those funds come from a separate pot of state money called the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP). STIP money gets allocated to local districts every other year. Humboldt County's allowance is about $12 million per cycle, so the 101 corridor project, with its $24 million price tag, would use two full years cycles (four years) of STIP funding. Lovelace, for one, isn't sure that's a good idea. He and his fellow supervisors are looking for some community input.

The board has called for a special meeting next Monday, Nov. 14, at 1:30 p.m. to discuss the pros and cons of spending so much scarce money on the project. The ultimate authorization is up to HCAOG, so the board is seeking input on how to direct its representative on the association's board, Second District Supervisor Clif Clendenen.

Here are the confusing details: STIP funds come in two-year cycles, but they're programmed in five-year increments. So the next increment will cover the five fiscal years of 2012-13 through 2016-17. The $24 million at stake here -- the money HCAOG is considering spending -- are tied to fiscal years 2015-16 through 2018-19.

Lovelace said that money could be used for a variety of other much-needed projects across the county: a roundabout at Murray Rd. and Central Ave. in McKinleyville; another roundabout at the "three corners" intersection of Old Arcata Rd. and Freshwater Rd.; new traffic signals in Eureka; and pedestrian improvements in southern Humboldt, among other projects.

"This is a huge issue," Lovelace said. He suggested that if a decision of this magnitude had been presented to the board with such little notice in the general plan update process, "people would scream, and someone would be fired."

The board of HCAOG is also taking its time with the decision. It elected to continue the decision on the project to its Dec. 1 meeting. If you have an opinion about how our county's limited transportation dollars should be spent, show up to one or both of these meetings and make your voice heard.

As for the lost $15 million in state funds, Floyd said that once the environmental clearances come through -- a step that will require sign-off from the California Coastal Commission -- we can ask for it back. But she acknowledged that state transportation funds are "very financially constrained."

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Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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