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Long Road Ahead for Florida Highway Stimulus Funds

Florida’s spending on highway projects funded by the federal economic stimulus plan is taking a different route than some other states, but the final destination is the same, state transportation officials said Monday in response to a Congressional committee report critical of state efforts.

Florida DOT spokesman Dick Kane told the News Service of Florida Monday that a dire Aug. 6 letter from the chairman of U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure to Gov. Charlie Crist did not reflect an accurate picture of the road traveled since the plan was put in place this spring. U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, warned that the state was ranked last in putting stimulus money for highways to use.

However, while the DOT and the governor’s office responded to Oberstar’s committee, Crist's U.S. Senate opponents sought to wedge the popular governor in the middle of rising voter frustration over the decidedly less well-liked $787 billion federal stimulus package.

Crist’s political office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the pleas for increased action from Oberstar or the attacks from Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek and Republican contender, former House Speaker Marco Rubio.

But Kane said the data used by Oberstar’s committee for its progress reports was six weeks old and did not differentiate between states that used the money to replace projects already in their 2009-2010 budgets and those, like Florida, that are beginning new projects.

“Some states planned to use these funds for existing projects, but we are required to prioritize preservation over capacity in our budget anyway, so most of these are projects that were in our pipeline but needed extra money,” Kane said, adding that the DOT beat a June deadline for obligating at least 50 percent of its $1.3 billion in highway money.

The point was echoed a Monday evening letter to Oberstar written by Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos and Crist stimulus advisor Don Winstead, who said they were “dismayed” by the chairman’s analysis.

“With all due respect, we firmly believe that the finding is outdated and does a disservice to the tireless efforts of the Crist administration and the employees of the Florida Department of Transportation, our partners at the city, county and metropolitan planning organizations, and those in the transportation consulting and contracting industries that are working side by side with us to put more than $1.3 billion in the Recovery Act funds to best use in here Florida,” the duo wrote to the Minnesota Democrat.

Kane said the data used by the Oberstar to urge Crist to “refocus your efforts to implement the Recovery Act and use the available funds create and sustain family-wage jobs,” was skewed because it included repaving projects that are completed more quickly than new construction.

“In the long run, what we’re doing is going to create jobs and improve our infrastructure and help with congestion, which was the whole point of the federal economic stimulus,” Kane said.

Kopelousos and Winstead added that states also have different accountability procedures and populations and project timelines vary based on types of construction.

“Given the fact that Florida has chosen not to supplant funds, has a more rigorous budgeting process, has a high percentage of capacity projects, has a larger number of urban areas with greater control over funding decisions and project administration and data utilized in the report is over a month old, we believe your analysis does not accurately reflect Florida’s comparative progress in implementing Recovery Act funds,” they wrote.

“Please be assured that we fully appreciate the importance of getting Recovery Act funds moving as quickly as possible. We are also confident that Florida is not only implementing projects quickly, but we are implementing projects that will create both an immediate and last economic value.”

The DOT’s most recent weekly status update on stimulus projects showed 521 projects totaling $1.4 billion have been identified, 306 projects totaling $1.1 billion have been obligated and $238.8 million of stimulus funds have been advertised or contracted.

Crist was perhaps the most familiar Republican outside of Washington, D.C. to buck his national party and support the stimulus package, which critics have said could lead to a $6 billion deficit. Crist went as far as campaigning with President Barack Obama for the proposal in Southwest Florida days before the legislation came up for a vote in the U.S. Senate. But that did not stop Crist’s political opponents from hammering him.

Republican Rubio, who has shifted his campaign to the hard right in an attempt to beat Crist in the GOP primary, visited Fort Myers and Naples, traditionally conservative hotbeds to "highlight the stimulus' failure to stimulate Florida's economy, to address the culture of reckless spending in Washington and to discuss solutions (Rubio) will pursue in the U.S. Senate to control federal spending," according to the West Miami former House speaker's campaign.

And Meek, who is seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, blasted Florida leaders following the congressional report that showed the state has only spent 2 percent of the $1.3 billion in highway stimulus funding on new construction projects.

"It was easy for the governor to stand on stage in Fort Myers with President Obama in February in support of the stimulus, but now the work begins and Florida is late in rolling up its sleeves to take advantage of these limited funds," Meek said. "The over 10 percent unemployed Floridians and the 3,500 Floridians who are losing their health care every week don't have time to spare."

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