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Cities lobby for more stimulus

The street at 10th Street and Concordia Avenue in Milwaukee, pictured Tuesday, is one slated for repair. Photo by Kat Berger

The street at 10th Street and Concordia Avenue in Milwaukee, pictured Tuesday, is one slated for repair. Photo by Kat Berger

Sean Ryan
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Wisconsin cities without street projects qualifying for stimulus money are pushing to shift the focus of federal rules toward spending on local roadwork.

But at least one state legislator is resisting the idea. Sen. Randy Hooper, R-Fond du Lac, prefers the money be used to pay down the huge backlog of state highway projects, said his chief of staff, Ryan Murray.
“If we are getting a few hundred million, we should be spending it on those projects,” Murray said, “rather than just diluting it even further.”

The Wisconsin Alliance of Cities wants to use federal stimulus money to pay the 20 percent municipal share for road jobs receiving federal or state cash in 2010. In return, the cities would use the local money they save to pay for local street projects that do not qualify for stimulus money, said Jeff Polenske, Milwaukee city engineer.

The move would create more work for contractors because cities otherwise would not have the money for the local projects in 2009 or 2010, he said.

“Our needs are far beyond arterial streets,” Polenske said. “We’ve been out there pretty vocal, saying, ‘We’ve got almost $10 million of local street projects that are designed and ready to go.’”

The Wisconsin Legislature’s Road to the Future Committee in 2006 identified a $700 million gap between state highway project needs and transportation money, Murray said. Wisconsin will not get enough stimulus money to fill that gap, he said, so the state must prioritize.

“It’s not a judgment on whether the local projects are worthy or not,” Murray said. “I think they are.”

State Rep. Jeff Stone, R-Greendale, said he would consider the Alliance’s idea if the switch creates more work for contractors and gets projects bid more quickly. Unlike some local work, some projects on the state’s backlog are not ready to bid this year, he said.

“There’s things that need to happen everywhere,” he said. “The question is: How many state projects can we do?”

Milwaukee Alderman Jim Bohl said he supports the Alliance effort and last week submitted a city resolution to lobby the state to dedicate more transportation money to local roads.

“Sometimes it just seems very sexy to focus on the main arterials,” he said. “But a lot of commerce and a lot of the movement that occurs every day occurs on local roads.”

Federal rules do not free up stimulus money for cities’ shares on projects next year, so the Alliance is trying to recruit members of Congress and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to argue the case, Polenske said.

“The DOT has probably the greatest ability to clarify how the funds are used through their relationship with (the Federal Highway Administration),” Polenske said.

WisDOT Executive Assistant Christopher Klein said the federal government doesn’t allow local governments to use federal money to pay for the local shares of projects. He said he hadn’t seen the Alliance’s plan to lobby for a rule change, so could not comment on whether WisDOT would participate.

Stone said considering one goal of the federal stimulus bill is to get projects bid quickly, it would hurt the plan if it takes too long to convince the federal government to change the rules. He said the Alliance’s push might be too late.

“That horse may have already left the barn,” he said.

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