DOT’s stunning backtrack

Posted on February 6th, 2012

Buffalo News Editorials (February 4, 2012)

The denial by the state’s commissioner of transportation of a $167 million funding error, which has prevented many of this area’s roads and bridges from being repaired and cost Western New York jobs, is nothing short of shocking.

Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald told a state legislative committee last week that she’s unaware of any mistake. However, “What is past is past.”

Huh?

Sen. Timothy Kennedy, a South Buffalo Democrat, was clearly taken aback. And he wasn’t the only one.

The Fair Apportionment of Infrastructure Revenue (FAIR) Committee, with Kennedy’s dogged assistance, has for years lobbied the Department of Transportation to correct the mistake and restore the funding for roads and bridges in Western New York.

Most of the $167 million is federal money delivered through the state to the DOT’s Region 5, consisting of Erie, Niagara, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties. The issue is whether the state should correct errors that slashed Region 5 funding in 2008 and part of 2009. The answer, as we’ve said before, should be a resounding yes, given past admissions by transportation officials.

Just one year ago then-DOT Commissioner Stanley Gee acknowledged the agency made an error in the way transportation dollars flowed to the different regions, sparking hope that the state would be making up the shortfall.

But not only did McDonald pull back from that admission, she failed to address Kennedy’s point that the state should factor in the 2008 accounting error and provide additional funding to the four-county transportation region for future projects.

McDonald instead pointed to the governor’s recent $1 billion pledge of economic development money for Western New York, and even contradicted her own position from less than a year ago in a letter to Kennedy in which she noted several times that the DOT made “errors” when calculating this region’s transportation spending decisions.

McDonald is dodging the point — the $1 billion promise has nothing to do with the DOT’s four-year-old mistake. The agency has already admitted making a mistake that has, over the years, hurt this region badly. Roads and bridges remain in desperate need of repair, and the economic development money has no connection to righting that old wrong.

The error has held up work on many projects, big and small. One of the biggest is Continental 1, the dream of a 1,500-mile highway from Toronto through Buffalo to Miami. Next up for that project is extending Route 219 in Cattaraugus County another 20 miles to Route 86 in Salamanca.

The Continental 1 funding was cut when the region was shorted the $167 million in question. The official reason for cutting Continental 1 funding had to do with the nation’s financial crisis. But in reality, Region 5 was short that money because of the state DOT’s accounting error.

It is past time for the DOT to correct this error. As Kennedy told the commissioner, “Our roads and bridges are crumbling.” If the DOT won’t act, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo must step in. This administration had nothing to do with shortchanging Western New York back in 2008, but it can and should make good on an old mistake.