Worthwhile, or waste? U.S. transportation law requires funds for 'enhancements'


Oct 11, 2003

Richmond, VA - The Virginia Maritime Heritage Foundation is building a 121-foot wooden schooner for $3.25 million, including $500,000 in federal enhancement funds. The schooner will be used to teach sailing, marine science, maritime history and ecology. (Photo by Schoo
At a time when Virginia's highways are taking a financial beating from the state's tight revenues and a physical beating from almost a year of extraordinarily bad weather, this year federal highway tax dollars are being used to:

build a 121-foot wooden sailing schooner in Norfolk: $250,000;
develop an automated, scale-model highway exhibit at Virginia Tech: $150,000;
help design a military history museum in Manassas: $125,000;
buy 696 acres of Civil War battlefields in Dinwiddie, Spotsylvania and Louisa counties: $550,000;
convert the abandoned steam plant at the Science Museum of Virginia into an entrance building: $130,000.
The schooner's construction, the model road exhibit, the museum design, the battlefield purchases and the steam plant renovation are federal "transportation enhancement projects."

Federal law requires that 10 percent of the funds distributed to states through the national Surface Transportation Program be spent on the dozen eligible categories of nice-to-have transportation enhancements.

Projects must fit one of 12 categories
In 1991, Congress established the transportation enhancement program, the first federal initiative focusing on enhancing the travel experience and fostering the quality of life in American communities.

The Federal Highway Administration says the enhancement projects "aid in providing more personal choices for all people, including those with disabilities, for travel by providing funding for sidewalks, bike facilities and the conversion to trails of abandoned railroad rights of way."

Communities also can use the money to help revitalize their economies by restoring historic buildings, renovating streetscapes, or providing transportation museums and visitor centers.

To qualify for the enhancement program, a project has to "relate to surface transportation" and fit in at least one of these 12 categories:
pedestrian and bicycle facilities;
pedestrian and bicycle safety and educational activities;
acquiring scenic or historic easements and sites;
scenic or historic highway programs, including tourist and welcome centers;
landscaping and scenic beautification;
historic preservation;
rehabilitation and operation of historic transportation buildings, structures and facilities;
preserving abandoned railway corridors;
control and removal of outdoor advertising;
archaeological planning and research;
mitigation of highway runoff and provision of wildlife crossings; establishment of transportation museums.
- Peter Bacque

Administered by the state, the program is extraordinarily popular, especially with small localities and historical preservation, outdoor-recreation, environmental, garden and other community groups.

Estimable in good economic times, officials said, some enhancement projects are of more questionable value when times are tough.

"Given the type of revenue constraints under which we're operating," said state Transportation Secretary Whitt Clement, "if this program were discretionary, I doubt that the Commonwealth Transportation Board would choose to use these federal dollars in the way we are required to use them."

But Congress says the transportation enhancement money can be spent on nothing else, no matter how many unpatched potholes Virginia has, no matter how bad the traffic congestion, no matter how many aging bridges need to be replaced.

Last year, the Commonwealth Transportation Board allocated $19.4 million in federal funds to 130 enhancement projects around the Old Dominion.

The Virginia Department of Transportation this year received 213 enhancement program applications, competing for $18.7 million. The Transportation Board will award the grants at its meeting next week.

In the past 12 years, the state Transportation Board has distributed about $143 million of the federal money to Virginia projects, though not all of that money has been spent yet. Since the enhancement program's inception, the state has committed to 487 projects, only 104 of which have been completed.

Many of the projects have lingered unfinished for years, officials said, with the public receiving little or no practical value from the federal money tied up during the projects' development and construction.

Among this year's projects, Virginia has approved using federal enhancement funds to help restore 12 old rail depots, preserve three railroad trains, reconstruct a circa-1875 railroad turntable, and restore 14 old homes, churches, taverns, courthouses and other buildings.

Most of the projects center around improvements to sidewalks, bicycle and walking trails, foot bridges, roadway landscaping and street lighting. The average allocation for the year was $149,000.

In the past 15 years, state-generated highway funds grew an average of 3.3 percent each year, said Barbara W. Reese, the Virginia Department of Transportation's chief financial officer. But for the next five years, state revenues are expected to increase by only 1.9 percent a year.

Faced with that kind of bleak financial picture last year, the Commonwealth Transportation Board cut the state's six-year road-building plan by $2.9 billion.

Hurricane Isabel already has soaked up an estimated $100 million for damage repairs, almost $30 million more than VDOT had budgeted for emergencies for the whole year.

The highway department's overall budget this year is $3.7 billion.

And, Reese pointed out, "We don't put any money into [the enhancement] program other than what we are federally required to put into it." In Virginia, local people have to find the money to match the federal grants, which will pay up to 80 percent of a project's cost.

From 1992 to 2002, the federal government handed out more than $5.6 billion for 16,699 enhancement projects across the nation.

To qualify for enhancement program funds, proposals have to fit into at least one of 12 project categories and "relate to surface transportation."

The Federal Highway Administration says surface transportation is any mode of travel except aviation and military transportation. Simply being located near a transportation facility - for instance, a road, train station or port - does not qualify a project for the program.

The schooner, being built by the Virginia Maritime Heritage Foundation in Norfolk for $3.25 million, is a reproduction of a 1916 sailing vessel that carried harbor pilots to and from ships at Hampton Roads.

So far, the foundation has received $500,000 in federal enhancement funds for the project.

The schooner will teach sailing, marine science, maritime history and ecology, while also conducting short passenger voyages and dockside tours, and hosting private and economic development receptions.

The schooner meets the transportation enhancement program's criteria as a museum, said Donald G. Maynard, the foundation's development director and education coordinator.

"It's fabulous that the government is willing to fund projects that enhance our community," Maynard said. "And I'm convinced that the schooner Virginia will be a great enhancement to the state of Virginia."

The proposed National Museum of Military History in Manassas will be located near a Virginia Railway Express Station and a new interchange off the state Route 234 Bypass, a museum spokeswoman said.

"A lot of the collections are military vehicles through history," she said, "so it fits the history of surface transportation."

Leading the effort to build the museum in Manassas is Chuck Colgan, son of state Sen. Charles J. Colgan, D-Manassas.

Students with Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute, working with the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond and the Virginia Transportation Museum in Roanoke, are developing two educational exhibits showing the future of transportation technology.

Tech's flexible low-cost automated scaled highway - or FLASH - project uses scale-model, self-guiding vehicles on a scale-model highway.

The total project cost is $180,015, with $150,000 coming from an enhancement grant.

The Science Museum here has a $130,000 enhancement grant this year to renovate the former Broad Street Station's steam plant for use as a gateway into the museum on its Leigh Street side, as well as building a trolley loop at the old railway terminal.

The steam plant stands in the former train yard behind the museum, which was "an overgrown, hazardous, abandoned railroad industrial site," said museum director Walter R.T. Witschey.

Thanks in large part to transportation enhancement money, the museum's campus is an attractive public space, he said, and attracting more funding from other sources.

"It helps us prepare to tell additional great stories," Witschey said, "including those of the RF&P [railroad], as well as Richmond's leadership with the world's first successful electric street railway."

As for the historic steam plant, Witschey said, "I seldom call it 'historic' myself."


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