Opinion

Road money falls short

The first crucial step in fixing the York County road mess -- a step already initiated by county officials -- is phasing out the project manager who has overseen the "Pennies for Progress" program for 10 years and his firm, Capital Management and Engineering.

The county learned recently that the program has a $22 million shortfall with half of the projects approved by voters in 1997 still uncompleted.

CME Project Manager Myron George told the county in August that the program had a $7.7 million deficit. But earlier this month, he told the county it would need an estimated $16 million to $22.8 million to complete the 1997 projects.

Estimating the cost of road projects often is a shot in the dark. Even the best estimates can by made obsolete by rising fuel, equipment and material costs, unanticipated right-of-way costs and weather delays.

But at least some of the surprise shortfall CME told the county about this month was the result of bad bookkeeping. For example, a $2.5 million grant was included twice in the estimates. The firm also overestimated the amount of interest earned on the money collected from the 1-cent sales tax.

This is not the first time the county has been caught flat-footed by an unanticipated increase in the project costs. In 2004, a special audit of the 1997 program found that it was underfunded by about $38 million, largely because of rising construction costs and the price of rights of way.

That wasn't made public until well after county voters had approved a second round of Pennies for Progress road projects in 2003. Fortunately, determined York County officials and the county's state legislative delegation were able to scramble and find money to make up much of the shortfall.

First, they were able to convince the state Highway Commission to approve an $18 million infusion from the state infrastructure bank. Then, the County Council transferred $8 million in surpluses from other accounts and committed "C" funds, the council's principal discretionary source of road money, to help make up the difference.

Now county officials are talking about using more than $10 million in interest earned on 2003 program funds to help pay for the unfinished 1997 projects. But, with a shortage of state and federal money slated for road projects, local officials are at a loss as to how to make up the rest of the shortfall.

There are no apparent easy fixes. But we think the county was right to move quickly to assume direct oversight of finances -- and to begin phasing out George and CME.

Finding the money to complete the first phase of Pennies for Progress will be tough, not to mention coming up with the money for the second phase. But the county has a responsibility to the residents who, in good faith, approved these projects.

We hope the county can find a way to make good on its end of the bargain.

IN SUMMARY

County has taken the necessary step of phasing out firm that has overseen road projects.

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