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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 16, 2003

Bush plan allots $900M for state highway projects

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

Hawai'i would receive more than $900 million in federal transportation money over the next six years under a Bush administration proposal announced this week.

The money will allow the state to build more new roads, fix old ones and improve traffic safety, said transportation officials who were relieved that the amount of money allotted to Hawai'i wasn't reduced by the administration.

"At first glance, it looks pretty good," said Gordon Lum, head of the O'ahu Metropolitan Planning Organization, which coordinates transportation projects involving federal money.

The proposal calls for the state's share of federal highway money to rise from $139.5 million next year to $162 million by 2009. In recent years, the state has received from $120 million to $150 million for highway and mass-transit programs.

The money is contained in the administration's $247 billion bill to extend existing transportation programs.

Critics, however, say states need far more money to maintain and improve their roadways than the government is offering. The House is considering a bill that would give $375 billion to highway programs.

Overall, Hawai'i appears to fare well in the administration's version of the bill, which is likely to be the source of intense political fighting and lobbying in Congress, officials said.

The most notable victory for the state could be in the way the federal dollars are distributed.

As a small state, Hawai'i has consistently received more highway money than it contributes through federal gasoline taxes collected here. Several larger "donor" states have been pushing for a change to reduce the percentage of money that Hawai'i and other "donee" states get.

"If they don't change the formula, then Hawai'i comes out ahead," Lum said.

Environmental groups, highway lobbying organizations and state advocates expressed disappointment with the bill. The American Highway Users Alliance called the administration level "entirely insufficient."

Mass-transit advocates protested the bill's provision lowering the federal match for "new start" transit projects to 50 percent, a decision which could affect the future of mass transit in Hawai'i.

In Hawai'i, a group of transportation officials is considering proposals to develop a new mass-transit system, which almost certainly would require federal assistance. However, they are operating under the assumption that the federal government would pay no more than 50 percent of the project's cost.

The administration bill includes just a 2 percent increase in transit money, meaning any Hawai'i mass-transit proposal would face stiff competition for federal dollars from more than 100 other areas around the country trying to get similar programs started.

The administration bill contains no revolutionary new programs, but does move to give states more flexibility in spending highway money, partly by eliminating most discretionary highway grant programs and replacing them with block grants. That's likely to help Hawai'i, Lum said.

The flexibility might allow state officials, for instance, to transfer plentiful dollars for the Interstate Highway Program to other areas, such as state highways, where there is a more pressing need.

"If there is true flexibility, we could put more money where it's really needed," Lum said.

The administration bill represents a 13 percent increase in federal money over the previous six-year plan, but is far less than what many lawmakers say is needed to reduce congestion on highways.

Environmental groups said the plan would make state transportation departments less accountable for cleaning up the air, and would weaken protections for parks, wildlife refuges and historic buildings.

"They want to streamline the environmental review process for highway projects," said Jeff Mikulina, president of Sierra Club Hawai'i. "No surprise. The Bush administration has been systematically rolling back all the protections we have."

Such protections over the years have helped improve several big transportation projects like the H-3 Freeway and the proposed Bus Rapid Transit, he said.

Two new programs would reward states for improving safety.

One would grant up to $415 million to states that pass primary seat-belt laws — meaning police can stop motorists solely for failing to buckle up. Because Hawai'i is one of 18 states that has such a law, it would not receive any of the additional money

A second program would award $50 million in grants to states that reduce traffic fatalities. The grants would pay for improvements such as safer walkways to schools, better highway signs, improved intersections and fewer roadside obstacles.

Reach Mike Leidemann at mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5460.