Transportation officials making plans for stimulus dollars

As the House, Senate and president compromise on how much money should be poured into the national stimulus package, local transportation officials are deciding what to do with the forthcoming money. The Senate closed debate on their version of the stimulus plan Monday and settled on $838 billion . President Barack Obama drafted an $819 billion economic recovery plan, which was passed by the House in late January. Millions of dollars from the stimulus plan will be designated for transportation projects across the state. Kevin Gutknecht of the Minnesota Department of Transportation said they are working to develop a list of projects they would finance with stimulus funds. MnDOTâÄôs âÄúhighway listâÄù contains 79 projects that would cost about $520 million. One of the pricier projects would give $86 million to widen part of State Highway 610 in the north Minneapolis suburbs to make it a four-lane freeway. MnDOT has estimated that highway projects could create more than 12,000 jobs in the state, and the Federal Highway Administration estimates that about 30,000 jobs are supported with every $1 billion spent on roads and bridges. Projects have to meet a certain standard to be put on the list, Gutknecht said. MnDOT is looking into projects that would create jobs quickly, provide work for a variety of positions, and balance between the metro area and greater Minnesota. MnDOT will be responsible for allocating 70 percent of the funds. The remaining 30 percent will be used by local government agencies like the Metropolitan Council, who has its own set of projects ready if the state gets transportation stimulus dollars. The council is seeking approval from the Federal Transit Administration to accelerate the final design process of the Central Corridor light-rail project. In order to get the project into the final construction phase in early 2010, the council would have to hire more engineers and gain right-of-way acquisition this year, which could cost about $40 million. As public transit ridership grows âÄî Metro Transit increased ridership by 6 percent and Hiawatha light-rail ridership increased by 12 percent last year âÄî revenue from MinnesotaâÄôs motor vehicle sales tax decreases. Peter Bell , chairman of the Metropolitan Council, said in his annual State of the Region speech last week that even with the increase of public transportation, Metro Transit is expecting a $45 million shortfall for 2009 due to a huge decline in revenue generated from motor vehicle sales tax. In order to support the bus systems, the Metropolitan Council wants to invest more than $2 million to replace 10 percent of their existing fleet with hybrid buses to save future costs on fuel. This could result in a fuel savings of up to 40 percent over traditional fuel vehicles, according to Metropolitan Council documents. John Schadl, press secretary for Congressman Jim Oberstar , who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said the amount each state receives is derived from existing funding formulas that are calculated every five years to make sure federal transportation dollars are distributed fairly. This system is being utilized instead of the earmark process, where legislators seek to direct a specified amount of money to a particular project in their home state or district. âÄúEconomists across the country are saying this package is not going to stop the recession or turn things around immediately, but itâÄôs going to slow the effects of the decline and keep us from hitting the bottom,âÄù Schadl said.