Feeding frenzy stimulated by stimulus funds

State and local jurisdictions are hoping federal money may soon rain down on Colorado communities suffering a funding drought for transportation and other capital improvement projects. But some local officials also worry that, with so many backlogged state and federal projects, little money will actually become available.

Counties and cities are lining up for money from President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, an $825 billion stimulus package aimed at jump-starting a faltering national economy and creating jobs.

Colorado could get up to $3 billion from the stimulus package, with $568 million in transportation funding in a bill that remains a moving target until it is finalized and adopted, which could happen as early as mid-February.

Officials say they remain uncertain as to how the money will eventually be doled out but they want to be ready when the dollars begin to flow. Most expect that only projects that are “shovel-ready” within 180 days – with all design work and permitting out of the way – will actually have a chance for funding under ARRA.

Every city and town in Northern Colorado is preparing its own shovel-ready list, but nothing is certain at this point, said Mindy Crane of the Colorado Department of Transportation. “Whether the cities and counties get funding or not all depends on how the bill is written,” she said.

CDOT takes lead

Much of the federal money is begin targeted at improvements in the nation’s crumbling transportation system. CDOT, with the help of local planning groups like the North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization in Northern Colorado, has begun compiling lists of top priority projects in each of the state’s six transportation planning regions.

Cliff Davidson, NFRMPO executive director, said CDOT compiled Northern Colorado’s lists using data collected for its Transportation Improvement Program, or TIP. North Front Range MPO had two projects at the top of the latest draft “A” list of eight prioritized projects in late January, with both focused on repairs to I-25. The rest were mainly state and U.S. highway projects spread across the region.

Davidson said he realizes some may be dismayed to see mostly federal and state projects topping the list.

“That’s the way it’s going to be, and it’s not because we don’t love our member governments,” Davidson said. “The feds started talking to the states. Counties and cities are also putting together lists, but how that’s all going to be worked out is not something we want to get caught in the middle of. As far as local projects go, we have no control over that.”

Marc Engemoen, Larimer County’s public works director, said he’s discouraged to see the CDOT lists top-heavy with state and federal projects. “Certainly, the state department of transportation has needs and a list of shovel-ready projects as well and they could spend all of that ($568 million) and more without it trickling down to local agencies,” he said.

Engemoen said that cities and counties would likely be able to get projects started faster and get stimulus money injected into the economy more quickly.

“Personally, I think cities and counties could get that money even faster into the economy and create jobs even faster than the state could,” he said. “I’m pessimistic about how much of this would find its way into city and county projects and infrastructure. “It sure is looking that way right now.”

Tim Nash, Greeley’s finance director, shares Engemoen’s pessimism. “I don’t have a high level of confidence of much of that trickling to the local level, but everybody wants to get their fair share,” he said.

Drop in the bucket

CDOT’s Region 4 – which includes not only Larimer and Weld counties but also Boulder and counties east to the state line – may get up to $68 million from the ARRA package, a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions in projects awaiting funding. One of the highest profile projects in the Larimer-Weld area is the replacement of an overloaded interchange at I-25 and Colorado Highway 392 west of Windsor. The project straddles property in Windsor and Fort Collins, and both cities have been working for years to find ways to fund the $25 million project.

In late January, CDOT agreed to release $1.9 million for engineering design work, perhaps clearing the way for the project to move up from the bottom of CDOT’s “C” list.

Mark Jackson, Fort Collins’ transportation director, said both cities are working closely with CDOT to accelerate the project with the goal of having the design work done by mid-July. “If that happens, there’s a possibility we could move (the project) up on the list ahead of A and B list projects that aren’t ready,” he said.

Transportation officials say whatever money eventually comes to Colorado, it will not begin to fix the state’s badly deteriorating transportation system.

“That’s why we end up in these feeding frenzies, because we don’t take care of our transportation utility,´ said Davidson.