Cashing in on federal stimulus package
WORTHINGTON -- The more than $800 billion economic stimulus package being worked out between members of the U.S. House and Senate this week includes nearly $100 billion for proposed infrastructure projects. Some of that money is hoped to make its way to Nobles County.
The proposed stimulus funding will create jobs, repair deteriorating infrastructure and improve the flow of commerce, but the money falls short of what is needed to fix aging roads and stressed bridges across the country.
Stephen Schnieder, director of Nobles County Public Works, said three projects identified in the county's five-year road plan may be moved up the list for repair this year if the funding comes through.
Once the stimulus package is approved at the federal level, transportation money will be divided among the states, which will then award funds to cities and counties.
Since Nobles County has projects already on the State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP), Schnieder said it is well positioned to get some of the money once it's available.
That money would fund improvements to County State Aid Highway 1, stretching from CSAH 36 to the south of Brewster to CSAH 18 at Kinbrae, as well as a smaller stretch that runs from Kinbrae to Dundee. The project from Brewster to CSAH 36 was on the county's drawing board for improvements in 2010, while the stretches of county highway from Brewster to Kinbrae and on to Dundee were in the plan for 2012.
"With the addition of (Minnesota Soybean Processors) at Brewster, we're seeing increased truck traffic," Schnieder said.
Plans for CSAH 1 are to do a bituminous overlay on the roadway, which will improve the spring road posting to a 10-ton weight limit.
"It's been 18 or 20 years since we've done anything with that roadway, so it's getting time to do something with it," said Schnieder.
In addition to the overlay, the highway will be widened by two feet, making it easier for truck traffic to maneuver.
The CSAH 1 project, estimated to cost about $1.5 million, is considered a "shovel ready" project, meaning nearly everything is in place but the funding to complete the project. That's important because once the funding is made available, counties will have 90 days to get the projects to contract.
The tight timeline is one of the reasons Schnieder isn't looking to the federal stimulus package to help fund some of the needed bridge repairs and replacements in Nobles County.
"At this point, the federal government is very adamant about making sure the timelines are being met," said Schnieder. "They don't want it carrying over to the end of the year and the work can't be done."
Part of the issue with seeking funding for bridges, especially in Nobles County, is the extra paperwork that would need to be gathered before a project is approved.
"We do have some bridges in the county that we would like to see replaced, but most of the bridges are on the western half of the county and the Topeka Shiner is there," said Schnieder, adding that letters of approval would be needed from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Corps of Engineers before any work could transpire.
The amount of funding that could trickle into Nobles County from the stimulus package will be limited, and it may not be feasible for every county in the state to get money for transportation projects, said Schnieder.
"The projects that will be done will end up being those that have no environmental impact or have been in the process of being developed for a while," he added.
The state is pushing counties to get their projects in order so that when the funding is available, it will get used yet this year.
Schnieder said he's heard that the money in the stimulus package would pay 100 percent of the costs of construction, unlike the STIP program, which requires a percent match or offers a specific dollar amount.
There's also talk that if states don't allocate all of their transportation stimulus money, those dollars would be available to other states that ran out of funds for their projects.
"Minnesota wants to make sure they have enough projects on their list that if a project or two can't make the deadline, another project can be inserted that can meet the deadline," Schnieder said.
Coming up short
The American Society of Civil Engineers says fixing the nation's roads, dumps, dams, bridges, schools and rail systems lumped into the infrastructure portion of the proposed stimulus package will cost some $2.2 trillion over the next five years. Even with the current spending and the proposed stimulus money, that means a funding shortfall of about $1.1 trillion, said Patrick Natale, the group's executive director.
The bill includes about $39 billion for roads and transit, $32 billion for energy, $9 billion for clean water and $20 billion for public schools.
Thanks to a gas tax increase enacted by the Minnesota legislature in recent years, Schnieder said the state is better off than some when it comes to funding transportation projects.
"The gas tax, if it hadn't been raised, we would have lost close to $350,000 in funding this year," he said. "We're very glad the gas tax got raised when it did."
Still, the county lost about $30,000 in funding for transportation, mainly because people are driving less and using less gas, motor vehicle sales are down, creating a drop in the taxes collected, and license tab fees have declined as people hang onto older vehicles longer.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.