Isabel’s Remnants Could Force VDOT to Delay Road Jobs

Fri October 31, 2003 - Southeast Edition

NEWPORT NEWS, VA (AP) The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) might have to delay some construction projects to focus on repairing roads damaged by Hurricane Isabel, officials said.

Hurricane-related repairs and cleanup are expected to cost VDOT $100 million — $26 million more than the department budgeted for weather-related emergencies for the entire year.

In 2002, the department budgeted $74 million for emergencies, then spent $175 million just on snow removal. To come up with the money, VDOT had to dip into the $900 million road maintenance fund. The same fund will be tapped again for this year’s emergency repairs — at least initially, VDOT said.

“We are working very closely with the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to recover as much of our emergency costs as possible,” VDOT Spokeswoman Tamara Neale told the Daily Press of Newport News. But right now, it’s too early to tell when we would be reimbursed and how much.”

It is unlikely that the state will see a 100-percent reimbursement, said Barbara Reese, VDOT’s chief financial officer.

“There is about a 50-50 split between the roads that do qualify for federal aid and those that don’t,” Reese said.

For example, two-lane local secondary roads that have been damaged don’t qualify.

“I cannot recall a time when we received all of our [emergency] costs back from the federal government,” Reese said.

Immediately after the hurricane, VDOT asked the FHWA for $25 million. As of last week, the department had received only $1 million.

“The FHWA has been clear in saying they don’t have the money,” Reese said.

Whatever money the federal agencies can pull together for Virginia might take years to arrive, she said. Reese said the FHWA was still working on paying other states for past storms.

Because most of the repairs can’t wait until assistance arrives, Reese said, the “cash-flow issues are what we are trying to work through right now.” That’s where a potential construction cut comes in.

“Think of the budget as three different pieces of a pie — construction, maintenance, and administration and operations,” Reese said. “We are looking at each piece. We’re starting the [construction] assessment now.”

In that piece, Reese said, “We are looking at projects that are out there that are scheduled to go to advertisement next year and if they can be delayed.”

But delaying road projects won’t be the only answer, Reese said, because it won’t bring a dollar-for-dollar savings to the state.

“The reality of the department’s construction program is that we are basically doing safety projects and congestion-relief projects,” Reese said. “And 65 percent of our construction program is federally funded. Interstate projects are 95 percent federally funded.”