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Highway funding for territory raises question of fairness

American Samoa gets only 10% of the total funding allocation to four U.S. insular areas from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and this came as a surprise to Rep. Larry Sanitoa, who sought additional information from the federal government in an effort to expedite the repair of deteriorating local roads in the territory.

Sanitoa had written a Dec. 3 letter to Clifford Chew, who is with the Federal Highway Administration office in Honolulu, seeking an update on the territory’s federal funds for highway programs.

The Territory Transportation Improvement Program (TTIP) for FY 2013 and FY 2014 had been advertised by the Department of Public Works, said Sanitoa in his letter. He pointed out “the terrible conditions of our roads” and noted that the road conditions in the Tualauta Plains area of the territory are in "a deplorable state.”

(DPW held a public hearing on the TTIP last month and Sanitoa was among the few people who attended the hearing.)

In a Dec. 5th letter, Chew responded, telling Sanitoa that concerns of the road conditions “are warranted and important to the federal highway” but pointed out that Hawai’i is faced with the same challenges in their road conditions.

Chew went on to explain that under provisions of the federal Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (or MAP-21), $40 million is authorized for the Territorial Highway Program (THP) for fiscal year 2013. Additionally, federal law also sets the formula for distribution of funds to the four U.S. territories under this program.

According to the formula, America Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, each receive 10% of the total allocation while Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands each gets 40%.

“Funds from the THP may be used for the Surface Transportation Program — as revised by MAP-21, preventive maintenance, and ferry boat facilities to name a few,” Chew explained. “However, funds from the THP cannot be used for routine maintenance.”

He also said that DPW is currently amending TTIP to identify projects that can be funded for FY 2013 and FY2014 and the TTIP should provide a multi-year listing of territorial projects and identify those projects slated for federal funding.

In addition, the TTIP should be utilizing existing transportation plans, policies and programming processes, he said and noted that FHWA looks forward to working with DPW to ensure that federal funds are used for projects that best benefit the traveling public in American Samoa.

Chew also says that FHWA plans to be involved in the planning phase, through project development and once construction beings, ensuring that projects meet the contractual requirements and expectations of the agency.

A week later, Sanitoa responded and thanked Chew for the information but sought additional details such as the criteria for this distribution formula and whether it was set by the U.S. Congress.

“The detail of this formula would definitely help me understand this, as I believe the 10% annual allocation seems too small for American Samoa,” Sanitoa wrote. He claims that 40% for the Virgin Islands is high, given they get substantial revenue from their cover over treatment tax on rum distillery, plus the Virgin Islands is economically better off than American Samoa.

Chew, a few days later responded, saying that administrative formula for allocating funds among the four territories was reviewed by the FHWA in 1992 and implemented in 1993.

“Based upon any combination of population, land area, and road mileage, it was determined that the two smaller territories — American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands — were receiving less than their fair share of the funding,” said Chew.

He also says that American Samoa’s current allocation of 10% is up from the previous allocation of 8.33%.

“With our current administration, one of the changes in regards to funding is that Congress will no longer entertain ‘High Priority Projects’,” said Chew, who also noted that he is not aware of other funding allocations or programs under MAP-21 for the Territorial Highway Program at this time.

Chew is scheduled to be in the territory next week and plans to meet with DPW and others regarding highway funding projects.

Meanwhile, Sanitoa has written to the incoming administration of governor-elect Lolo M. Moliga, about this latest information from Chew, as well as the status of local highway projects under the purview of DPW. He also forwarded to Lolo the letters and email messages sent to DPW regarding efforts to repair bad roads in the territory.

“At present, the most critical and highly urgent matter that I have relentlessly pursued with DPW is an ongoing temporary patching of both primary and secondary roads to minimize the current state of  hazardous driving conditions,” he wrote.

“As both of you will agree, many roads in Tualauta are at a deplorable state and it is a constant and continuous demand from residents to get the roads fixed,” he said.

Sanitoa says he will continue to follow-up with DPW on pending projects as well as look into other possible funding sources to help with many projects that are on hold due to lack of funding.