Catch-22By ANTHONY WARREN,
Federal funding delays road projects, increases costs
Last February, the city of Jackson received $1.4 million to repave a little more than a mile of East Northside Drive.
Nearly a year and a half later, the city has not bid the project for construction, and cannot do so until after it gets the go-ahead from the state.
The repaving project is being paid for with federal dollars, meaning the city must cut through several miles of bureaucratic red tape before it can bring on a contractor.
Federal funding represents a Catch-22 for local governments. Cash-strapped cities like Jackson need the money to help with billions of dollars in infrastructure needs.
Federal grants usually require a 20 to 25 percent match.
But cities that take federal dollars know their projects will be subject to numerous federal regulations that increase costs and stretch out completion times by months or years.
“Yes (the regulations) slow things down, in my opinion, unnecessarily,” said Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall. “And when you slow down, it costs more money.”
Jackson Engineering Director Charles Williams addressed concerns recently at a one-percent commission meeting.
Commissioner Pete Perry asked Williams why it was taking so long for work on Northside Drive and North State Street to get under way.
Both projects are being funded with monies set aside as part of those awarded to the city through the “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation” Act.
“(They) said a year ago that we’d see Northside Drive bid out next fall. Now, I read in the Northside Sun that it won’t be bid out until 2019,” he said. “Why does it take us so long?
(Both are still slated to bid out during the 2019 fiscal year, which begins on October 1.)
“The money’s there. Why can’t we get Northside (Drive) designed and (have) paving started within a year?”
Williams pointed to the federal requirements. “It goes back to this: there’s a process in the project development manual we have to follow. That’s not an excuse. That’s where we’re at,” he said.
Federally funded road projects must go through a lengthy review process with the state. The process is spelled out in the “Mississippi Standard Specifications for Road and Bridge Construction,” also referred to as the “Redbook.”
The 1,113-page book can be found on the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) Web site. The document was updated in 2017, per changes in federal law.
Among provisions, the feds require the state transportation department to review the project at every step. For new road construction, initial plans must be reviewed and signed off on. The project must be reviewed for environmental impact. The state also must sign off on right-of-way acquisitions and final construction documents before the project can be bid out. The state must also concur on bid specifications and on contract terms once a firm is hired.
The city of Ridgeland received a nearly $11 million Congressional earmark for the Lake Harbour Drive Extension Project more than a decade ago.
The first phase of the project was bid out in October. The second phase, which includes the construction of a flyover bridge connecting Lake Harbour to Highland Colony Parkway, likely won’t be bid out until the fall, said Mayor Gene McGee.
The city had hoped to bid out the second phase earlier this year but was delayed after the state updated its Redbook.
“We procured the right-of-way, moved the utilities and were going through the review of the design, and MDOT told us they had a new Redbook and we had to start again,” he said.
Ridgeland was previously operating under the 2004 Redbook, the last updated edition.
“We had to update our construction documents based on the new specifications. That cost us another $100,000,” he said.
The project was not grandfathered in because no provisions in the Redbook allow for it, according to Central Mississippi Planning and Development (CMPDD) Director Mike Monk.
CMPDD administers federal funds for many road projects, including the Lake Harbour extension.
To date, the $28.4 million project has been in the review, design or right-of-way identification and acquisition phase for 3,911 days.
Reconstruction projects also take longer with federal funds.
The East Lake Harbour Drive rehabilitation project, which included repaving a roughly 1.4-mile stretch, cost around $1.8 million and took 433 days to complete.
Had the project been done in-house, McGee said it would have cost just over a million and taken 257 days.
McGee also pointed to parking lot improvements made at the Mississippi Crafts Center. The city received federal funds to repave the parking lot.
With inspections, engineering and the like, the total cost of the repaving ran around $616,000 and took 2,257 days from activation to completion.
In house, the mayor said it would have cost around $119,000 and taken 261 days to complete.
“When you use federal dollars, you wind up with additional red tape and an increase in cost by 30 to 40 percent,” he said.
Jackson received $1.4 million for Northside Drive and $1.86 million for North State Street.
The projects include milling and overlaying Northside from the I-55 North frontage road to North State, and North State from Fortification Street to Woodrow Wilson Avenue.
So far, the review process has taken more than twice as long as the actual repaving will take.
Last year, city officials told the Sun both streets could be repaved in 120 to 180 days, weather pending.
Federal dollars come to local governments in one of several ways. It can be awarded through Congressional earmarks, awarded through MDOT or administered through the local metropolitan planning organization (MPO). The MPO for Hinds and Madison counties is CMPDD.
Monk agrees it can take too long for projects to move forward. However, he said other factors could also slow down construction. Right-of-way acquisition can slow down new construction, especially if a parcel is owned by multiple individuals.
MDOT takes much of the blame, which Hall believes is misplaced.
“It’s not us making the regulations. We are responsible for making sure the regulations are met by the local governments involved in the project,” he said.
He said the problem is not just a local problem, but a national one.
Even President Donald Trump has said regulations have gotten too onerous.
In March, the Atlantic reported that the president wanted to reduce the review process for road projects to “an average of two years.”
“By streamlining the bureaucracy, the administration argues it can lure more investment from the private sector, as well as from state and local governments,” the Atlantic reported.
Hall doesn’t know how the review process will be shortened and said MDOT awaits directions from the White House.
“There’s nothing the state can do until they ease up (on) requirements,” he said. “If Trump does, that will make it better on all of us.”