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WisDOT: Objectivity guides stimulus selection

Dustin Block
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Politics were not in play when the city of Milwaukee missed out on the first round of stimulus money, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

The $42.5 million in local road and bridge projects approved Tuesday by the state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee were selected based on criteria established for the use of stimulus money, said Chris Klein, executive assistant for WisDOT. Projects either met the criteria and got money, or they didn’t, he said.

“There was no picking and choosing,” Klein said. “We picked 100 percent of the eligible projects.”

Milwaukee submitted two ineligible projects for the first round of stimulus projects, according to WisDOT spokeswoman Peg Schmitt. A road project could not meet the required 75-day deadline, and a bike trail project did not qualify for stimulus money, she said.

On Monday, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said he is upset the city was left out of the first round of stimulus projects and is concerned the Interstate 94 expansion from the Mitchell Interchange to the Illinois border will count against the money the city can receive.

Klein said the I-94 project will not affect the city’s stimulus money possibilities. He also said the Milwaukee urbanized area, which includes most of Milwaukee County and portions of Waukesha and Washington counties, will receive $38.7 million for local road projects from a different pool of stimulus money.

The city of Milwaukee alone is planning to submit more than $38.7 million in road and bridge projects, though, said city engineer Jeffrey Polenske, and will have to compete with projects submitted by neighboring communities for a piece of the available $38.7 million.

Barrett said he had hoped the city would also be eligible for a piece of the $109 million statewide pot of stimulus money, but Polenske said the city is limited to the $38.7 million set aside for the Milwaukee area.

A 19-member committee under the auspice of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission will select the projects that receive money set aside for the Milwaukee area, said Kenneth Yunker, executive director of SEWRPC.

The committee met for the first time Monday, he said. It’s also responsible for distributing $28 million in federal formula transit money, Yunker said.

Not everyone was buying Milwaukee’s worries about losing out on stimulus money.

Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine and a member of the Joint Finance Committee, said there was $795 million spent rebuilding the Marquette Interchange and plans are under way to spend millions more rebuilding the Zoo Interchange. Both projects will primarily benefit Milwaukee, Mason said.

“To say they’re not getting their share isn’t true given the totality of economic development coming to Milwaukee,” he said.

Mason said his district was left out of the first round of local projects. It had nothing to do with politics, he said. WisDOT simply evaluated submissions and created a list of projects that could start in 75 days.

“They were the projects that could get people back to work fastest,” Mason said.

Competition for stimulus money also may be reduced by a tight timeline, according to engineers.

Local governments must submit their projects to WisDOT by April 1, have detailed plans ready by May 1 and spend the money by March 10, 2010, according to WisDOT. Any unspent money might be given to other states.

Polenske said Milwaukee city engineers — busy with their usual workload — would need consultants to get projects to reach the deadlines.

Michael Lewis, city engineer for West Allis, said even with four or five consultants he’s not sure how his department would get approvals in time. An intersection West Allis rebuilt in 2008 took six years to work its way through all of the state’s levels of approval.

The difficult timelines won’t stop West Allis from going for stimulus dollars, Lewis said.

“We’re going to throw in,” he said, “but I can’t possibly see how this can work.”

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