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Road projects face $3.5 million shortfall

By Ben Rodgers

BROWN COUNTY – The Brown County Planning Commission recently learned about what appears to be roughly $3.5 million less in federal funds to complete previously scheduled projects.

The Surface Transportation Block Grant program (STBG or STP) is a source of federal funding that can cover up to 80 percent of the cost for transportation projects.

The Brown County Planning Commission Board of Directors acts as the policy board for the Green Bay Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and makes the final decisions regarding the funding awards.

“Bottom line, is we had roughly roughly $5.28 million in October of 2017,” said Cole Runge, principal planner for the Brown County Planning Commission and Green Bay MPO director. “Our MPO policy board (planned for) that and now we’re in September of 2018 having to go back and essentially remove funding from projects that were approved by our MPO policy board because we have roughly $3.5 million less to assign to those projects.”

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the body that under federal law must make federal funds available to MPOs, said the money did not vanish.

“The bottom line is that no Metropolitan Planning Organization has lost or is losing their STP allocation,” said Christian Schneider, director of the Office of Public Affairs for the DOT, in a statement. “More than $47.4 million in federal funding was used for local STP projects by MPOs in fiscal year 2018 (throughout Wisconsin). The money did not disappear. It was simply not counted in the forward-looking plan that ends in 2022.”

Schneider said confusion stems from an accounting change regarding how many years into the future to schedule the grants.

“Planning in 2017 was delayed by a year while the state debated whether to fund the program with state or federal funds. Thus, when it was restarted in 2018, the state decided to go with a four-year planning window rather than the five-year window used the previous two cycles,” Schneider said. “In doing so, it may appear that funding was left out of 2018 in the new plan; yet the funds were already covered under the previous plan and were allocated according to that plan.”

Due to the way the funding cycles were planned and carried out, and the change from five years to four, all the money that was due to be allocated in 2018 was not included in the next plan, which makes it look like it’s missing, but was allocated under the previous two plans, according to the DOT.

Runge said this accounting boondoggle still leaves him with questions.

“Explanation aside, I would be wondering why we had roughly $5.28 million to assign to projects in October of 2017 and now we only have roughly $1.78 million to those same projects,” he said.

This change will affect four upcoming projects in the greater Green Bay area:

  • Manitowoc Road between between Allouez Avenue and Kewaunee Road (Bellevue).
  • Gray Street between Reed Street and Velp Avenue (Green Bay).
  • Lawrence Drive between 500 feet south of Fortune Avenue and Scheuring Road (De Pere)
  • Vanderperren Way between Holmgren Way and Ashland Avenue (Ashwaubenon)

The Green Bay MPO has devised two scenarios to address the missing $3.5 million.

The first would be to elevate two projects, Manitowoc Road and Vanderperren Way to the maximum funding level of 80 percent by splitting the $1.78 million between them.

The second would be to fund Gray Street, the highest ranked project, at 68.7 percent of the total project cost, $1.78 million.

Steve Grenier, Green Bay public works director, said Gray Street is impossible now with the change.

“It has to do with how the agreements are structured with the locals and the state and sunset funding that goes along with those projects,” Grenier said. “The simple change of going from a five-year program to a four-year program got us caught in the middle and there is no way to get Gray completed. That’s not a criticism, that’s not a compliant, that’s just a simple fact. I’m not angry with the DOT, it’s just how things worked out. It’s unfortunate and had we not changed from a four-year program to a five, none of this would have happened, but it did.”

Grenier said the impact of the change for the city is unknown.

“We will likely be able to design and deliver that project at a lower overall cost than following their (DOT’s) process,” he said. “So it’s yet to be determined what the direct impact to the city will be. We simply don’t know.”   

In De Pere the immediate impact of having a project removed will be moot, but the effects could linger, said Scott Thoresen, the city’s director of public works.

“It’s not a project we had going next year for our budget, so the immediate impacts are not drastic compared to the other communities that had the projects scheduled next year,” Thoresen said. “But for De Pere what that means for us is, if that funding goes away totally, we’re going to have to come up with funding because that section of street needs to be reconstructed.”   

In Ashwaubenon, the impact of the change pushes the Vanderperren project back a year, but that could be a benefit, said Doug Martin, Ashwaubenon director of public works.

“At this point the project is still being kept as fully funded,” Martin said. “Worst case scenario it will get bumped back one year from a 2020 construction to a 2021 construction. So worst case scenario is a one-year delay on the project, but at the same time the county is trying to get additional funding for the section of Vanderperren between Holmgren and Oneida.”

If the county succeeds, both projects could be done at the same time.

“It is a year delay, but the good news is it might actually line up funding and construction wise to happen in the same year, which would be a positive in the long run,” Martin said. “That isn’t to say I agree with the funding process and the change, but at least the impact for the village and the county may not be as drastic as other projects.”  

Runge said this is the first time his 22.5 years of employment with the county that there has been a shortfall of federal funds for the STBG program.

“It doesn’t appear, on the surface at least, to be an accounting issue,” he said. “It appears to be an issue where we had much more money a year ago to spend on projects than we do now.”  

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