Reduced federal funds affect roads

Projects take a hit in available money

Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Alaska is still getting a significant amount of federal money for transportation projects around the state, but less and less of it is available for construction or rehabilitation of major highways and roads, according to officials with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

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The amount of money that could be available for major road work in 2007 may be at the lowest level in a decade, according to Jeff Ottesen, director of the Division of Program Development in the state DOTPF.

An immediate problem, however, is that Congress adjourned Dec. 9 without passing the appropriations section of the federal Department of Transportation bill.

Although the program is being continued at 2006 levels, there is still uncertainty as to when funds will be available for 2007 construction, Ottesen said.

This creates problems for the state in issuing contracts this winter for construction next summer, he said. At this point, the state has funding only through Feb. 15, 2007, under a continuing resolution, an action Congress takes when a budget is not passed. The resolution extends funding from the previous year.

The state agency manages construction of transportation projects financed mostly by federal funds and, so far this year, has been working under a series of short-term extensions of prior-year program funds.

"We can't be sure at this point that we have a full year's worth of funding, which we need to let contracts for the 2007 summer season," Ottesen said. Contracts are typically let in the winter so contractors can order equipment and material, and mobilize for a start of construction in late spring, he said.

There are also some critical components and materials, such as steel for bridges and concrete, which take more than one year to purchase and take delivery, he said.

As for overall funding, Ottesen said the state is still getting about $500 million a year, but that much of this is taken up by earmarks, or special designations for projects. This means that much less money is available for the major roads listed on the National Highway System.

"We used to have about $200 million a year available for work on the NHS roads. Now it is about half of that," Ottesen said. The effect of this, when combined with inflation, is a sharp reduction in the number of major road construction or rehabilitation projects the DOTPF can muster.

"We used to be able to do 10 to 12 good-sized projects around the state every year. Now, when you combine less money and the effects of inflation, the best we can do is about three major projects a year," Ottesen said.

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