Stimulus money eyed

State transportation board meets in Bullhead City

JAMES CHILTON/Miner<br><br>
Standing before the state transportation board in Bullhead City’s Council Chambers Friday morning, Kingman Vice Mayor Janet Watson reads a letter from her husband, District I County Supervisor Gary Watson, thanking board members for their commitment to improving roads throughout the county.

JAMES CHILTON/Miner<br><br> Standing before the state transportation board in Bullhead City’s Council Chambers Friday morning, Kingman Vice Mayor Janet Watson reads a letter from her husband, District I County Supervisor Gary Watson, thanking board members for their commitment to improving roads throughout the county.

BULLHEAD CITY - While the exact details remain hazy regarding which highway infrastructure projects will stand to benefit from the hundreds of millions of dollars Arizona will receive from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act - known more commonly as "the stimulus package" - on Friday morning the state transportation board got an idea of at least how much money they're looking at.

Meeting in Bullhead City's Council Chambers, board members listened as the Arizona Department of Transportation's new interim director, John Halikowski, reported what ADOT has thus far learned about its share of the stimulus. While final totals would remain unknown for at least another few weeks, Halikowski said the state should receive roughly $522 million for highway and bridge projects.

Of that, fully 30 percent of the funds, or $156 million, would go to local governments, leaving ADOT with about $350 million. Halikowski noted that at least half of those funds must be committed to projects within 120 days of the stimulus bill's enactment, with the remainder to follow within one year. Projects that receive stimulus money would have to complete construction within three years.

Good stewards

"There is a competitive grant component to this that we're still sorting out, but it looks like there will be some money available for grants based on criteria that, again, we're still looking at," Halikowski said. "We intend to aggressively pursue those competitive grants, but in order to make ourselves look eligible for those, we want to make sure that we're good stewards of the stimulus money that has been awarded to the state."

Halikowski also further defined a frequently-cited provision of the stimulus bill, that projects must be "shovel ready." Shovel ready, he said, means that those projects must have already gotten their environmental, utility and rail clearances from the corresponding agencies, the right of way must already be purchased, the design must be completed, and they must not require any new conformity analyses.

"There are heavy reporting requirements," Halikowski added. "We will be under close scrutiny of the money that we spend. Given what's happened, I think, with some of the bank bailout money, (the Federal Highway Authority) is going to be watching the states closely and expecting us to do a number of audits on our consultants and our project managers out there, to make sure this money is being spent properly."

No raid on funds

Halikowski said that, contrary to fears the Arizona legislature might use the incoming stimulus money as an excuse to raid ADOT's existing budget to help make up the state budget deficit, the stimulus act requires that stimulus money not supplant or replace any funds that the state already had slated for ADOT through September of 2010. However, ADOT's assistant director for policy and governmental affairs, Gail Lewis, noted that a formal legal opinion on that had not yet been obtained, and that the agency's legal department would be closely watching the state's actions.

The board itself spent much of the meeting debating how ADOT's $350 million share of the stimulus should be distributed among the state's three main regions - namely Maricopa County, Pima County and the remaining thirteen counties. ADOT Chief Financial Officer John McGee presented the board with three possible approaches to distribution, based on the way the state has distributed funds in the past.

Divvying it up

The first approach, based on the state's distribution of the Highway User Revenue Fund, would give approximately $130 million to Maricopa County and $45 million to Pima County, with the remaining $175 million spread throughout the remaining counties. The second approach, based on the Statewide Transportation Acceleration Needs Account, would distribute the money by population, giving $210 million to Maricopa, $56 million to Pima and $84 million to the rest of the state.

McGee's third approach would first allocate $74 million to Maricopa County to restore funding for lane extension projects on Interstates 10 and 17 that had been swept by the state legislature to make up the budget shortfall. The remaining $276 million would then be distributed similarly to the first approach, with Maricopa receiving an additional $102 million, Pima receiving $36 million, and the remaining counties receiving $138 million.

Board members unanimously endorsed the first approach, arguing that neither of the others was equitable, especially considering $80 million from the thirteen rural counties had already been reallocated for Maricopa's I-10 project, and was not likely to be repaid anytime soon.

Members had also been scheduled to discuss which kinds of transportation projects should receive top priority from the stimulus funds. Instead, they asked state engineer Floyd Roehrich to get back to them with estimations of the number of jobs and manhours involved in each of the 114 shovel-ready projects ADOT has identified. Roehrich noted that ADOT was already compiling such a list, and that it would be complete within the next week and a half.

The board will meet again to further discuss its stimulus priorities in Phoenix the week of March 2. As of press time, the exact date and time had not been determined.