Leader Blues

Friday, November 28, 2008

TOP STORY > >Officials hope for stimulus funding

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

President-elect Barack Obama and congressional Democrats promise a massive new infrastructure stimulus-spending plan to jump-start the economy, but so far local agencies can only speculate how that would affect them.

The federal government could pump as much as $700 billion into the economy, funding roads, bridges, trains, mass transit, schools, power plants, transmission lines and energy-efficient homes.

But the details are too few to move the Arkansas Education Department, the state Highway and Transportation Department or
Metroplan far down the proverbial road.

While school facilities throughout Arkansas need remodeling or replacing, state Education Department officials seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude. “I haven’t heard any discussion about it,” said Gayle Morris, an Education Department spokesman.

Highway and Metroplan officials agree that as far as roads or bridges, any money would be aimed at projects that have been through environmental andplanning stages. For the money to flow and have any effect on the economy, it must fund projects that lack only the money to move forward, according to Jim McKenzie, executive director of Metroplan. Metroplan is the local metropolitan planning organization that must sign off on road and highway projects funded through the federal government.

State Highway Depart-ment spokesman Randy Ort says he hopes there will be a stimulus package with money for highways.

“We would hope it would come for highways. We have informed our umbrella state agencies that we have 100 projects waiting on funding that total more than $700 million,” Ort said.

“If we did receive money, we could put it to work immediately, putting people to work,” Ort said. Locally, new funding could expedite the widening of state Hwy. 107 from Bearpaw to Brockington. The money could also move up the widening of southbound Hwy. 67/167 from Redmond Road to Kiehl Avenue.

“We still have a public hearing to go on that one,” Ort said.

“We’re just trying to figure out which way the world’s turning,” McKenzie said.

“Nobody has a handle on what it looks like and we’ve been talking to congressional staff,” McKenzie said this week. He said the total stimulus package looked like it would be “at least half a trillion dollars, but you have bankrupt automobile companies and suppliers, it could approach a trillion.”

McKenzie said he thinks the infrastructure money would be available for projects ready to go to contract within 180 days.

“Most of the ready-to-go, easy projects are street and bridge overlays, routine maintenance, bridges in particular,” he added.

Those would be more the purview of cities and counties. “The North Belt (Freeway) would not meet criteria,” McKenzie said.

“It’s not even ready to buy right-of-way.”

McKenzie said the bigger the stimulus bill was, and the longer it stretches out, the greater the likelihood that money would be available to fund the final $340 million of the North Belt Freeway.

“It’s going to be competing with a lot of projects,” McKenzie said, not just other highway projects but extended unemployment compensation, medical coverage, new schools, water projects and who knows what else.

“If you dump a lot of public-works money in, there may not be enough people to do the work all at once,” he said. “Right now it’s all a big unknown.”

Also, Obama has a significant climate-change initiative, McKenzie said, and there is some talk of limiting the money to projects that wouldn’t hurt the climate. That would eliminate new capacity. Using that consideration, repairing I-40 would be all right, but completing the North Belt Freeway or widening freeways and bridges might not.

“One of things we’re clearly going to be working on is moving forward with regional arterial projects—not highways—like the plan to widen Brockington Road in Sherwood,” McKenzie said.