Budget stalemate threatens highway projects

January 16, 2009 6:39:36 PM PST
A state board voted Friday to release hundreds of millions of dollars for public works projects. This comes after the board froze $4 billion in projects last year affecting everything from carpools to classrooms. Many highway projects are impacted.

The I-680 Sunol Grade project is supposed to bring the first high-occupancy toll lanes to the Bay Area and hopefully relieve some of the state's worst congestion. But the work could come to a halt if the state budget stalemate continues. Without a budget, the state can't sell the bonds needed to fund it.

Contractor Ben Rodriguez's company, Bay Cities Paving, was paid late for work done in December. And two weeks ago, Caltrans warned he might have to shut down work. But on Friday, the state said his 200 employees could keep working, at least for another two weeks.

"Without a budget the state is essentially asking us to work on good faith without being paid," says Rodriguez.

This project is just one of more than 5,000 state infrastructure projects threatened, delayed or halted. In the Bay Area, 16 highway projects are in jeopardy, including the new carpool lanes on Highway 101 in the North Bay and the Caldecott Tunnel fourth bore in the East Bay.

The construction industry is mobilizing to push legislators to work out a budget. While the state's unemployment rate is at 8 percent, it's 21 percent in construction. Operating Engineers Local 3 union leader Pete Figarito says there's an unwritten rule every construction worker knows.

"If you can't do it, you can't stay. I'm urging my members and every worker in the constrution industry to call their legislators and deliver that message to them," says Figarito.

Laborer Shane Cecchini has been unemployed for six months.

"Lucky the government has an extension on unemployment benefits. If it wasn't for that, I'd really be in trouble," says Cecchini.

The I-680 project is supposed to be finished in July. With no budget, it will take a lot longer than that.