Stimulus money hits the road
Chaffetz says that he has a way around earmarking projects
Rep. Jason Chaffetz will not be the one who chooses which road projects will split the $15 million or so of federal money that he could earmark for his district in an upcoming, five-year transportation authorization bill.
Instead, he said Monday that he persuaded the House Transportation Committee to set aside roughly that amount of money for his district but let the Utah Department of Transportation decide how to spend it based on its priority list.
"I want to get as much politics out of it as I can," said Chaffetz, R-Utah. It is his way of avoiding earmarks — or ordering federal agencies to fund specific projects — which he campaigned against. But it still sets aside for his district a similar cut of overall funding as other districts receive.
"There were some mayors who were getting a little bit antsy worrying that they were going to get nothing" in the transportation bill because Chaffetz has refused to request traditional earmarks, he said. "I'm here to say I think that, in many ways, we can get more out of our dollars" through his new method.
State Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, praised that move in a conference call with Chaffetz and the press. He said, "It's a better process because you don't have whichever city has the best lobbyist clamoring for their projects to be earmarked."
In the past, Dougall said he believe funding sometimes went to low-priority projects that simply had good lobbyists. Also, he said past earmarking often slowed all projects, because the state had to spread slices of federal funds to many projects instead of finishing the highest-priority ones first and quickly.
State Rep. Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, added, "In Utah, we try to get away from the politics of picking projects (by) going to a scientific, criteria-based system for the transportation commission to choose projects." She said that helps "get you the best return the quickest, and in the most critical areas."
Chaffetz said members of the Legislature had urged him to take his new approach, and he did — the first member of the Utah delegation to do so.
About 15 percent of all transportation money authorized in such bills is traditionally spent on "high-priority transportation" projects earmarked by Congress, with the rest distributed to states by formulas. Chaffetz's office said most members are permitted to earmark $10 million to $15 million for that "high priority" section of funding.
"I want to make sure that the allocation of federal dollars is fair and open," Chaffetz said. "The Utah Department of Transportation is in a much better position to allocate those dollars."
John Njord, executive director of UDOT, said Chaffetz's approach will allow flexibility to allow UDOT to focus federal money on one or two projects, such as the rebuilding of I-15, to complete them more quickly.
Njord said that may also stretch money because with all the restrictions and paperwork requirements that come with federal funding, "one federal dollar is only worth about 85 cents" in state funding, he said.
So Njord said that by focusing federal money on a few key projects, others will be funded entirely with freed-up state money — that may be stretched further and help complete those projects more quickly also.
"It is best to make decisions at the local level," Chaffetz said. "UDOT and the Utah Legislature have set up a system that is fair and equitable. It's open and it's transparent."
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