County Infrastructure Waits for Council to Get Moving

Decision by consensus and influence of vested interests blamed
By Yvonne Marcotte
Yvonne Marcotte
Yvonne Marcotte
December 30, 2015 Updated: December 30, 2015

NEW WINDSOR—John Czamanske, the chair of the Orange County Transportation Council and the county’s deputy commissioner of planning, calls the process “byzantine.” Dan Depew, supervisor of the Town of Wallkill and standing member of the Transportation Council, calls it “broken.”

They are both talking about the process to receive the federal funds to maintain the county’s transit infrastructure. The Orange County Transportation Council runs this process, managing how roads, bridges, and other pathways are kept in working order.

The Transportation Council technical committee met on Nov. 17 to discuss the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), a draft resolution on air quality conformity, and the county’s long-range transportation plan update.

CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation Air Quality), LPU (Local Projects Unit), TIP (Transportation Improvement Program), administrative modification Q—the meeting is a lesson in acronyms and complexity for observers.

Byzantine or Broken

Every four years federal highway funds are given to the state to distribute to planning groups in each county. Officials of various jurisdictions send representatives to the Transportation Council.

If it were working the way it’s supposed to work, I would say that its impact is tremendous.
— Dan Depew, member of the Orange County Transportation Council

The council reviews all transportation infrastructure projects to determine how to prioritize allocation of the funds.

“That’s our whole role,” Depew said. “If it were working the way it’s supposed to work, I would say that its impact is tremendous. If implemented correctly, it should have a tremendous effect on people being able to see projects get done.”

Czamanske tries to moderate and make sense of problems on the Council, but, despite all the goodwill, there are problems. “It’s broken,” Depew said. “The entire process is broken.” Uncompleted projects affect other projects down the road and the cost rises as each year goes by.

Port Jervis Mayor Kelly Decker described rising costs for the Neversink bridge at the Dec. 28 city council meeting.  “That project has increased by $2 million, just our share, by the time that it actually goes to fruition. As this project continues to go on, unless it is done, the price still goes up and someone has to pay for it.”

The City of Newburgh is reported to have uncompleted infrastructure projects going back 20 years. Depew says the problems faced by the Transportation Council are two-fold, involving decision making by consensus and the influence of vested interests.

In No Hurry

Engineering plans are necessary for any infrastructure project. If an engineering firm is hired to design a project, their revenue will cease when their work ends.

Decker said the city is requesting more funding on the Neversink project, not for construction, “only engineering fees.”

When questioned by a DOT representative, Jack Farr, Port Jervis’s representative, who also represents the engineering firm hired by the city, is quoted in minutes of the Sept. 22 meeting saying, “the funds would be for detailed design, separate from the preliminary design, which produced an unexpectedly high cost due to engineering fees caused by the delayed process.”

It’s a moral hazard.
— Transportation Committee member Dan Depew on having engineers vote on infrastructure projects.

Depew says the Council allows engineers and others with a vested interest to vote at a meeting. He says members who vote should be the elected officials “who are accountable, who make the decisions, prioritize projects, and determine where the money comes from to pay the bills.”

Depew doesn’t blame anyone, especially the experts who design the infrastructure projects. “The people who are in this precarious position voting as an engineer are good people, but it’s a moral hazard,” an ethical dilemma engineers are placed in by their clients. Their firms depend on the revenue these projects generate. Depew says very little actually gets built because it’s always in design.

At press time, engineers on the Transportation Council did not respond to requests for comment.

Consensus…or Not

 The Transportation Council operates on consensus, which Depew calls a “terminal flaw developed by bureaucrats.” He says there is no place for consensus in the organization. If only one member votes “no” the issue does not pass.

Depew described how consensus killed a questionnaire for determining viable infrastructure projects. A group developed a questionnaire for projects already in the pipeline. It was supposed to go out over a year ago.

The questionnaire asked simple questions. If local leaders still wanted the project, they were expected to draft a resolution. A resolution was needed because “you have administrations that change, goals that change, and funding that changes.” The resolution would lay out the parameters of the project—what, where, completion timeframe, and the source of local share for funding. “These should be simple questions,” Depew says.

A municipality can fund the local share through a surplus, cash, or issuing a bond. He said the questionnaire would inform and instruct local leaders in determining if they could go through with the infrastructure project requested years before.

Depew says the decision to send out the questionnaire was voted down by a single member’s “no” vote.

Have the State/County Do It

 Depew says the process is a bureaucratic nightmare designed to produce very little. “It’s a great system for press conferences, announcements, and commitments. It’s a horrible system for implementation and for results.”

He has some recommendations. One is to let the state keep the federal funding instead of sending it to counties for distribution. “The state owns bridges, roads, and sidewalks right in our community.”

New York can use the money to maintain state thoroughfares with direction from each locality. Cities and towns can tell the state to “keep the money. We will tell you what projects to do, but you keep the money.”

Another alternative is to have the county maintain infrastructure projects. “The county gets projects done. They have a lot of bridges and they do a pretty good job,” Depew said.

The county could also hand out block grants. The county creates a block grant program of county tax dollars to go back to the municipalities. “That way, all the federal and state restrictions that come with how you spend the money, where you spend the money, land acquisition policies—all these things would no longer exist, and it would basically be a straight county grant to get work done.”

Depew said the process of allocating federal transportation funds through the Transportation Council started out as a good idea but is not realistic. “The project was designed with all the good intentions of utopia. They would be coming from an understanding of global goodness. Everyone would be honest. That’s just not the case.”

He said it’s somewhat ironic that organizations around the country have everything in place except the funds to make it happen, but with the Transportation Council, the situation is reversed. “Here, we have the funding—the hard stuff we have—the easy stuff is the stuff that seems to be never able to be dealt with.”

The Transportation Council’s meeting minutes for Oct. 22 state that $6.3 million of CMAQ funding is currently accessible. In 2017, $21.5 million CMAQ funding will be available for transportation infrastructure.

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