Minneapolis, St. Paul request economic stimulus funds


Most Minnesota cities and local government entities have put together their belated Christmas wish lists for federal economic stimulus funds. But like any child who asks for a pony or a train set, they don’t always get what they want.

The Twin Cities seem to be chomping at the bit, quickly submitting their funding requests, and seeking similar amounts for their projects. Minneapolis has 40 projects, according to Jeremy Hanson, the mayor’s spokesperson. Only 20 of these are specifically detailed in the list sent to the Minnesota congressional delegation.

The New York Times reported January 16 that Democrats in the United States House of Representatives, in conjunction with President-elect Obama are asking for “huge increases in federal spending on education, aid to states for Medicaid costs, temporary increases in unemployment benefits and a vast array of public works projects to create jobs.”

The House is expected to vote on the preliminary stimulus bill (which now calls for $550 billion in spending and $275 billion in tax cuts) the week of January 26.
St. Paul has submitted more than $146 million in federal stimulus requests to its congressional delegation, about half of which (some $75 million) is for St. Paul parks and recreation projects. Like Minneapolis, St. Paul is putting a high priority on projects related to the proposed Central Corridor Light Rail Transit. Currently, it is requesting $10 million for a new parking garage along the proposed LRT route in downtown St. Paul. The city also is asking for $40 million for the Cleveland Circle project, an expansion of facilities, including the addition of a community ice facility, in the Event District near RiverCentre, Xcel Energy Center, Ordway Center for the Arts and Roy Wilkins Auditorium. Other items on the River City’s list include: $11 million for a state-of-the-art gorilla exhibit at Como Zoo; $2.5 million for security cameras in St. Paul parks; $2 million to replace the 90-year-old “green stairs” on the West Side of St. Paul, near downtown; and $8 million for the construction of a new Arlington Library and Recreation Center

Minneapolis’s list includes a minimum of $150 million in federal stimulus requests for the replacement or improvement of roads, bridges and trails and at least $30 million for street lighting and other projects. The city has listed its priorities in a “Top 20” list, which includes: $30 million for access to Interstate 35W from 3rd and 4th Street; $18 million for Minneapolis sidewalks and upwards of $10 million for improvements or upkeep on the Midtown Greenway bridges. Officials have said the city’s top priority, however, is $76.6 million in stimulus funds for new roads and bridges near the University of Minnesota.
Now that plans are in motion to bring the Central Corridor light rail through the U campus and all the way to downtown St. Paul, an estimated 40,000 vehicles will need to be rerouted when work on a transit and pedestrian mall along Washington Avenue begins, according to Minneapolis estimates. To help smooth this transportation transition, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said in a recent MN Stories interview that the city’s No. 1 request is the so-called “mitigation” around the U in the form of a “ring-road” that would surround the campus rather than run through it, and the construction of five other roads or bridges.

“These lists are not likely to mean much as the federal economic recovery packages comes together,” Minneapolis mayoral spokesman Jeremy Hanson said in an e-mail. “But it has become clear that the recovery/stimulus package will not specifically fund ‘earmarks’ or specific projects … .”

Hanson said Minneapolis would prefer to receive stimulus funds in the form of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which he said give local governments more flexibility to divvy up funds as they see fit.

In the MN Stories interview, Rybak said his impressions from President-elect Barack Obama, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) would be that the stimulus package could include “incentives for police officers and teachers,” but he remained unsure about how it will all play out.

“Boy, it’s gonna be really complicated how all this comes together,” Rybak said. “But the good news is … I’ve been invited to be part of these key meetings, with key mayors, and I’ll keep carrying the case for Minneapolis.”

Congress doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel on this one, and will likely place priority on projects that are ready to go, and use mechanisms such as local block grants to distribute the funds, predicted Phil Eckert, Hennepin County Housing, Community Works and Transit director. Eckert, who also is Hennepin County’s list-maker for economic stimulus projects, currently is taking suggestions, checking them twice, and helping to guide the direction of the county’s wish list.

Unlike Minneapolis and St. Paul, Eckert said Hennepin County is taking a decidedly slower approach, feeling out the specifics of the federal bill before commissioners sign off on their requests.

“I don’t know that there’s any particular advantage to being first in line,” Eckert said. “We’re assuming it’s all ideas in the pool, and that the ideas that fit best in the scheme will do well.”

Hennepin County’s wish list currently contains some 20 requests, with emphasis on transportation projects (such as $2 million towards the Lowry Bridge‘s estimated $80 million demolition and reconstruction price tag) that could be completed sooner rather than later.

Eckert doesn’t believe that the longer the list is, the better the chances you’ll get what you ask for.

“Everybody’s assuming five or six items [will be granted],” he said. “Everyone is sort of competing within a statewide pool of needs and there will certainly be some politics, as well as some good economics. It will come down to how many jobs can you estimate this activity might create or be preserved.”

The County Board of Commissioners will continue tweaking their federal wish list at the January 27 meeting, and though mid-February (or beyond) by which time President Obama is expected to sign the completed bill.

Steven Pease is a Minneapolis writer.