U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has formally responded to Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan's request for a reallocation of federal highway funds, saying that until the Commonwealth government does a better job of spending the federal money it already has, there will be no change in the funding formula. LaHood, a former Member of Congress, is a Republican.
“As soon as the Commonwealth is able to demonstrate a consistent increase in the rate of expenditure of funds, we will work with the four territories to make any necessary adjustments to the allocation formula,” LaHood wrote to Sablan.
Sablan has told the department that it is time to reconsider the funding distribution that was set in 1992. The Commonwealth receives 10 percent of each year's Territorial Highway Fund appropriation. Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands get 40 percent each; and American Samoa receives 10 percent.
“If you look at population, land area, miles of roads-any objective measure,” Sablan said, “the Northern Marianas should be receiving more than 10 percent of total highway funds.
“I appreciate Secretary LaHood saying that he would take these factors into consideration when the formula is adjusted. But he won't be doing that, until the Commonwealth government starts spending the millions of dollars of federal highway funds that it already has.”
The Commonwealth has spent only 23 percent of the funding it received through SAFETEA-LU, the 2005 Transportation Act.
The average expenditure for Guam, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa is 53 percent, over twice the CNMI rate.
“We all know that our highways need improvement. We should be using these federal funds to fix the roads and reduce wear and tear on people's cars,” said Sablan. “It's just a waste to have this federal assistance available and not be using it.”
Highway funding is not the only area, where the Commonwealth government's slow spending is putting federal funding at risk. The Obama Administration proposed in 2011 that the Interior Department be allowed to give unused Northern Marianas Covenant funds for infrastructure to Guam and other territories.
Sablan was able to kill that proposal in the fiscal year 2012 Interior appropriation. But the Obama Administration repeated its recommendation to Congress in the President's fiscal year 2013 budget.
“Because we are funding FY13 on a continuing appropriation, which means no change in any legislative language, the Commonwealth dodged this bullet again,” Sablan said. “With federal money getting tighter and tighter, however, any Northern Marianas infrastructure funds not being spent will be vulnerable to reprogramming to the territories where the local governments are eager and able to put federal dollars to work.” (PR)