Delaware legislators’ control over road projects at issue

DOVER — The program that allocates hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawmakers for transportation projects of their choosing could see an overhaul soon to give the Department of Transportation more authority in determining where that money is spent.

Every year, the capital bond bill gives money to legislators as part of the Community Transportation Funding (CTF) initiative. As the name of the program suggests, each of the 62 recipients has full authority over where to spend that funding, although it all must be at least tangentially related to transportation.

In the current fiscal year, each legislator was earmarked $350,000 to repair potholes, add traffic signs or construct sidewalks, among other uses.

CTF exists because many miles of the state’s roadways in need of repairs won’t be touched by DelDOT in the near future, either because the agency doesn’t have control over them (as is the case in municipalities and subdivisions) or because the roads are simply low on DelDOT’s project priority list. In short, the program gives lawmakers a quick and easy way not just to address road needs in their districts but also to score points with constituents.

But the program has been criticized over the years: Some call it a political slush fund, noting legislators can use the money for items only somewhat connected to the original purpose, such as landscaping, all-terrain vehicles for first responders and bicycle safety programs for two Sussex County churches.

The fact CTF dollars don’t have to be spent in the district they’re assigned to is also a point of contention for some.

In 2002, for instance, Sen. Tom Sharp, who represented the Stanton area, spent part of his CTF money on Sussex County projects just before leaving office. The move was seen by some as an act of vengeance against his successor, who beat Sen. Sharp’s preferred candidate in a primary.

Some of these concerns arose again Monday during a Joint Committee on Capital Improvement hearing, prompting a heated outburst from one downstate legislator and leaving Secretary of Transportation Jennifer Cohan trying to thread the needle between defending her agency, making her point and not stepping on too many toes.

Monday’s debate centered around inequities, specifically on the disparity between some upstate and downstate districts. More urban legislative districts, chiefly those situated above the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, can only perform a fraction of the needed repairs due to the sheer road mileage, a contrast from much of the rest of the state.

That’s what prompted DelDOT to, at the General Assembly’s direction, start a pilot program and reserve some extra CTF money to be spent based solely on the severity of road issues. DelDOT has expended $5 million in each of the past two years, enabling it to perform repairs on 76 extra locations, the agency said.

Gov. John Carney’s proposed budget would allocate another $5 million to DelDOT while cutting legislators’ share to $275,000 apiece.

Rep. Mike Ramone, a Republican from the Pike Creek Valley area, has been one of the main proponents of revamping CTF in recent years. Rep. Ramone, who said his district has one of the largest stretches of mileage in Delaware, floated giving DelDOT a much greater share of CTF money and more ability to spend it.

There’s a perception among some Delawareans awarding CTF dollars is driven by politics, used to reward supporters or purchase votes, Rep. Ramone said, although he wouldn’t say whether he feels that way.

Some legislators, instead of using CTF dollars to make badly needed repairs, withhold that funding to see if the roads in question will eventually be covered by DelDOT first, he said. That may allow lawmakers to “stretch” their funding more, but it also can leave roads in poor condition for longer.

“Constituents deserve peace of mind,” Rep. Ramone said after the hearing.

In response to his fear, Ms. Cohan said most legislators “do the right thing.”

As an alternative, Rep. Ramone suggested reducing each lawmaker’s share to $50,000 or $100,000, giving DelDOT an extra $11 or $14 million, but also allowing legislators a little more flexibility and the ability to request DelDOT spend some of its share in their districts. To ensure Kent and Sussex don’t get the shaft, a certain portion could be reserved for each county, he said.

Rep. Ramone emphasized his idea is only a preliminary plan, saying he wants to work with other lawmakers on a change that could generate broad support.

But the idea met with strong opposition from Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican who accused Rep. Ramone of wanting to hand total CTF control to DelDOT.

“The idea that we want to take that discretion away from us, maybe I’m old-fashioned and overly optimistic, I think we’re as close to the people as you can get,” he said.

Such a change could also lead to downstate districts being neglected, he said.

Ms. Cohan said last year DelDOT would be willing to take over the program and believes such a change would allow the state to get better bang for its buck in the process, but she acknowledges it’s out of her hands.

“This program was created by you and is managed by you,” she told the committee Monday. “Whatever you want to do is what we will do.”

The Joint Committee on Capital Improvement is likely to revisit the issue when it takes more steps toward finalizing the bond bill in the upcoming months.