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DiNapoli: N.Y. Shortchanged Bridge, Highway Projects

Fri November 06, 2009 - Northeast Edition

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) New York has shortchanged highway and bridge projects by billions of dollars over nearly two decades, siphoning off funds set aside to pay for repairs and upgrades to cover other state expenses, New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said Oct. 29.

He said almost $4 billion will have to be transferred by the state to the Highway and Bridge Trust Fund by 2014 to meet the obligations of the fund, created in 1991 to pay for construction and rehabilitation of state-owned roads and bridges.

Only $11.6 billion, or just under 35 percent of the fund’s total, has gone directly toward infrastructure over the past 18 years, DiNapoli said at a Long Island news conference. The rest has been diverted, with legislative authorization, to debt payments and operations of the state transportation and motor vehicles departments, some of it in budgets passed during DiNapoli’s 20-year tenure as a state assemblyman.

“This is not acceptable,’’ he said. “This money should be used to keep our roads and bridges safe.’’

DiNapoli, who has been comptroller for two years, said the impact of transferring taxpayer money from the trust fund can be seen in the recent shutdown of an upstate bridge. The Champlain Bridge linking Crown Point, N.Y., and Addison, Vt., was closed Oct. 16 by New York state Department of Transportation because of severe erosion in some of the span’s concrete piers.

Better management of the fund would have meant the state wouldn’t be scrambling to find money to repair the 80-year-old bridge, DiNapoli said.

“We’ve strayed from the path of what the trust fund was meant to be used for,’’ DiNapoli said.

The bridge closing has forced some New York and Vermont residents to take ferries or buses to get to their jobs or make 100-mi. detours around the lake’s southern end. When told about the frustration and anger felt by many in the North Country, DiNapoli said: “I think outrage and anger is certainly appropriate. We need to channel that into thoughtful public policy, though.’’

The Highway and Bridge Trust Fund revenues come from highway and motor vehicle taxes. According to the comptroller’s report, the two-thirds of the total fund diverted went to pay off state debt or to pay operational costs at the DOT and the Department of Motor Vehicles. Neither agency immediately responded to calls for comment.

The raiding of the trust fund started just a few years after it was created. Since then, the Legislature has approved using the trust fund to pay debt service for bonds that were issued by the Thruway Authority as well as to pay for DOT and DMV operational costs, the comptroller said.

When asked about his role authorizing the transfers as a lawmaker, DiNapoli said only that it was part of the larger annual budget process.

DiNapoli’s report calls for developing a plan to better manage the trust fund to ensure money is available to meet the state’s highway and bridge repair needs. The report also recommends that state officials come up with a process for capital projects that prioritizes critical infrastructure needs among New York’ deteriorating roads and bridges.

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