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Stimulus definitions fall short for low-income areas

Dustin Block
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The federal stimulus bill places a priority on road and bridge projects in low-income areas, but local officials requesting money say they do not know how that provision will play out.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act states economically distressed areas — those with incomes 80 percent of the national average or with unemployment rates 1 percent higher than the national average — should be given preference for the distribution of stimulus money. But the Federal Highway Administration has decided it will not define what the provision means for states, which are responsible for selecting projects to receive the money.

Karyn Rotker, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Foundation Inc., said the result may be no one follows the provision. Little, if any, of the first round of stimulus money — including $300 million to expand Interstate 94 from the Mitchell Interchange to the Illinois border — went to economically distressed areas in Wisconsin, she said.

“It’s not clear anyone is evaluating this,” Rotker said.

In the Milwaukee area, the way an advisory committee to the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission interprets the “economically distressed areas” provision could swing millions of dollars to the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County. Both governments plan to submit projects that, when combined, are worth more than the $38.7 million in stimulus money set aside for road and bridge projects in the Milwaukee urbanized area. Most projects are in low-income areas, officials said.

The city of Milwaukee alone is planning to request $69 million in stimulus money for bridge and road projects, said Commissioner of Public Works Jeffrey Mantes. Nearly all of them are in “economically distressed areas,” he said.

“We like to think it’s important,” Mantes said about the provision favoring low-income areas. “It benefits Milwaukee if it’s high on the list.”

The same goes for Milwaukee County, said Jack Takerian, acting director of the county’s Department of Transportation and Public Works. Many of the county’s submitted stimulus projects, totaling about $70 million, are in low-income areas, he said.

But Takerian said it is unlikely location alone will determine which projects get money. SEWRPC’s committee includes five members from the county, five members from the city and nine members representing outlying areas in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee counties. A compromise is likely in the distribution of stimulus money throughout the Milwaukee area, Takerian said.

Road and bridge ratings, existing formulas and other criteria also likely will be used to distribute stimulus money, he said.

Gary Evans, engineer for Waukesha County, said he expects at least a portion of the stimulus to be distributed based on a community’s total highway miles. Waukesha County has the second most miles of highways in the Milwaukee area, so the county is likely to receive stimulus money, he said.

“I’m fairly confident we’ll do fine out of this,” he said.

Statewide, and even nationally, people are at a loss over how the economically distressed areas will be considered, said Kevin Traas, director of transportation policy and finance for the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association. No one in Wisconsin, or anywhere else, has said how the provision will apply to the $109 million in road and bridge money available to communities outside of the Milwaukee and Madison urbanized areas, he said.

Madison’s urbanized area will receive $9.7 million.

“I’ve been on conference calls with people in all different states, and that’s a big issue everywhere,” Traas said. “No one knows what determines an economically distressed area.”

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