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Study finds fault with Fla.’s plans for spending stimulus

MANATEE — Florida has poorly planned how it will spend transportation money from the federal economic-stimulus package, a national planning advocacy coalition said in a study released Monday.

The state ranked near the bottom in a Smart Growth America study into states’ intended use of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act spending for surface transportation projects. The study faulted Florida for earmarking most of its $1.35 billion allocation for new or wider roads, leaving little for enhancing mass transit or repairing deteriorating roads and bridges.

“It’s like adding a new wing to your house when the roof is falling in,” said Geoff Anderson, president of the coalition based in Washington, D.C.

Using data that states submitted to the federal government, the group said Florida plans to spend 73 percent on new and wider roads and just 22 percent on preserving existing roads and bridges. The U.S. averages were 31 percent and 63 percent, respectively.

Florida’s percentages ranked it 48th, better than only Arkansas, Kansas and Kentucky. At the other extreme, Delaulus money because repairing roads creates more jobs and direct economic spending than paving new roads, the study said. The study called it “a missed opportunity” for states to clear backlogs of deferred maintenance.

Florida Department of Transportation officials questioned the study’s methodology and findings.

They noted the surface transportation money’s use is largely limited to highways, and that the study did not include $8.4 billion the stimulus package has set aside for transit. Also, Florida has a lower percentage of roads in poor condition compared to other states that are spending more stimulus money on road maintenance, they said.

“You could say it’s a great thing that we’re not spending a lot on preservation because we’ve done a good job in keeping our roads up,” said Kevin Thibault, FDOT’s assistant secretary of engineering and operations.

A coalition official agreed, up to a point.

“Florida, even though it’s better off than other states, is still way behind the repair curve,” said William Schroeer, the group’s state policy director. “There’s still no reason why they couldn’t do that (more road repairs and maintenance) because the money’s available.”

A local transportation official noted that several stimulus-funded projects in Manatee County will improve existing roads. Among them are resurfacing University Parkway, replacing a bridge over Wares Creek and expanding a traffic-management system countywide, said Mike Howe, executive director of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“I’m proud to say that our projects for the most part are maintenance-related. A lot of resurfacing, some bridge work,” said Howe, whose board sets transportation spending priorities for the two counties. “We did pretty good locally in terms of meeting the Smart Growth (America) perspective.”

The group timed the report’s release to Monday’s deadline for states to commit at least half of the $26.7 billion the stimulus package set aside for surface transportation projects. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have met the deadline, and now must commit the rest of the money by March 1, 2010.