:Chattanooga; :Feb 18, 2009; :Front Page; :1


State lawmakers want to avoid stimulus detour

By Andy Sher asher@timesfreepress.com

Online: Listen to Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely explain how the federal stimulus will affect road and bridge projects. Read previous stories. Comment.

    NASHVILLE — Tennessee officials intend to finalize contracts on the state’s estimated $572.7 million share of federal transportation stimulus money by June, but some lawmakers worry the current list of “shovel-ready” projects detours around their counties.

    “Ironically and unfortunately, some of the counties in my district that have the highest unemployment are apparently not on any short list for stimulus money,” Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, said Tuesday during a meeting of the Senate Transportation Committee. “An example that comes to mind is Rhea County.”

    He noted that unemployment in Rhea is in the double digits. Yet, he said, no Rhea County highway or bridge projects are on the state’s list of 113 “ready-togo” projects believed eligible for the $787 billion economic stimulus bill signed into law Tuesday by President Barack Obama.

    State Transportation Commission Gerald Nicely told committee members that, under federal requirements, the state must get half the projects out within 120 days or risk losing funds.

    As a result, he said, the state is requiring that, to qualify for the stimulus funds, transportation proj-
ects already must have been designed and rights of way purchased with most, if not all, environmental work done.

    “We think it’s the one piece of the stimulus that really will meet the goal of stimulating the economy by providing jobs,” Mr. Nicely said. “Our estimate is that (from) the money we’re getting, about 25,000 jobs will either be created or retained.”

    Overall, Tennessee would see about $4.2 billion in federal funds over the next two years in areas ranging from transportation to education to food stamps under the stimulus plan, according to the latest estimates from Federal Funds Information for States, a joint project of the National Conference of State Legislatures and National Governors Association.

    “I’m just pointing out that there just might be some holes in the doughnut here,” he said.

    Mr. Nicely said the state had tried to spread the projects out as equitably as possible. He also held out the possibility of a “ripple” effect with projects being funded by federal dollars freeing up money for other projects.

    “If we’re able to get these projects ready right now, that means our regular money can be used for projects we probably wouldn’t have gotten to,” he said.

    Moreover, the commissioner reminded lawmakers, the Bredesen administration still hopes to convince lawmakers for permission to issue about $350 million in Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle bonds to rehabilitate up to 200 state and local system bridges.

    According to the Federal Highway Administration, states can issue such bonds and use future federal funding as the funding stream to pay them off.

    Mr. Nicely estimated that Tennessee could generate another 15,000 jobs with its own mini-stimulus proposal. But the use of Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle bonds is viewed warily by the powerful Tennessee Roadbuilders Association lobby.

    During the meeting, Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, asked whether local metropolitan planning organizations, which also are eligible for some federal stimulus funds, will be required to meet state guidelines.

    Mr. Nicely said they would.

    According to preliminary state estimates, the state’s four major metropolitan planning organizations, including the one in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, will divide about $43.8 million in federal stimulus funds among them while seven smaller planning organizations will split an additional $8.9 million in funding. The combined $52.7 million is part of the overall $572.7 million the state will receive.

    Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman B.J. Doughty said by e-mail that the Chattanooga/Hamilton County MPO would see about $5.3 million under the preliminary estimates. The figures are not final, she said.

    Tennessee also would see about $72 million for public transportation, primarily to help buy equipment such as buses, according to figures provided by Mr. Nicely.

LOOKING AHEAD

    Thursday: President Obama outlines a $50 billion plan to prevent foreclosures. Stimulus money provides temporary patch for Tennessee, Georgia.

    Friday: Stimulus provides incentives for physicians, hospitals to go to digital records.

    Saturday: Money for broadband expansion included in stimulus.

    Sunday: A look at stimulus-funded local projects.