Legislators eye changes in road repair authority

DOVER — Every year, each lawmaker receives hundreds of thousands of dollars for road projects not covered by the Delaware Department of Transportation. Allocated as part of the Community Transportation Fund (CTF) program, the money enables lawmakers to repair potholes, add traffic signs or construct sidewalks.

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.

With CTF, lawmakers have a quick and easy way to score points with constituents by addressing needs in their districts.

But that responsibility might be shifting, with some legislators advocating for giving DelDOT the power to handle those suburban streets.

“We’ve started to hear over the years, and it goes back more than a decade, having some sort of other mechanism that recognizes not all senators have the same number of road miles and not all representatives have the same number of road miles and it’s resulted in a proliferation of … exceptions, so people who don’t have that many road miles that they have to maintain look for ways to spend that money and they’re not always sharing it with the senator and the rep who have more road miles,” Joint Committee on Capital Improvement co-chair Sen. Dave Sokola, D-Newark, said last week.

Sen. Sokola made the remark after the committee heard DelDOT’s capital budget request for the fiscal year starting July 1, and while there was little discussion of CTF during the hearing, the secretary of transportation had more to say when asked about it following the meeting.

“The department would be happy to do it, and we think we could do it and we could do it efficiently, but also we know that the legislators control the Community Transportation Fund. It’s their program,” Jennifer Cohan said.

Supporters of the current system believe lawmakers are more aware of the individual needs of constituents and can quickly address road-related problems.

The General Assembly last year approved a pilot program allocating $5 million for DelDOT to make repairs on those oft-ignored roads that depend on CTF. DelDOT has distributed the money based on need, without regard to legislative district or country borders, Ms. Cohan noted.

In the current fiscal year, each legislator was allocated $350,000, up from $275,000 the year before (the two co-chairs of the committee Joint Committee on Capital Improvement got an extra $315,000 apiece).

In response to a question Monday from Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley, about the efficiency of the CTF program, Ms. Cohan said there would be cost savings if the entire effort was overseen by DelDOT.

One of the flaws with CTF, she told the committee last year, concerns what money can be spent on. Because the program is for transportation, only transportation-related items are eligible – with a big “but.”

The long list of allowable CTF spending includes bulkheads, landscaping, general capital expenditures to support open space uses on certain properties, all-terrain vehicles for first responders and bicycle safety programs for two Sussex County churches.

In 2017, Rep. Sean Matthews, D-Talleyville, sent a letter to DelDOT questioning whether CTF violates state law authorizing “absolute care, management and control” of roads to DelDOT. According to Sen. Sokola, Rep. Matthews’ district contains more road mileage than almost any of the other 61 legislative jurisdictions.

While Rep. Matthews did not cite any specific instances of abuse, his letter noted lawmakers could pave the same street year after year, opt not to spend CTF dollars or use their funding for projects in another lawmaker’s district.

In 2002, 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.

It remains to be seen whether the General Assembly ends up ceding more control of the program to DelDOT. Lawmakers are currently divided on the issue, according to Ms. Cohan said.

The bond bill, which won’t be finished for several months, could include an expansion, or at least a continuation, of the pilot program.

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