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Hard-hit counties could miss out on highway grants

Brett J. Blackledge
AP Writer

Washington (AP) — A new grant program allows federal officials to target areas hardest hit by the recession with money for roads and bridges, but struggling counties waiting for stimulus help could miss out on transportation money.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood proposed rules Friday for a new $1.5 billion grant program aimed at major transportation projects and job creation. Congress gave LaHood discretion over the money, including allowing him to help economically distressed areas.

But new rules tied to the money would mean communities would have to have projects ready to go, with much of the planning, engineering and approval process already completed. A similar “shovel ready” requirement has kept stimulus money for roads and bridges out of many areas suffering the most from big job losses and the recession.

An analysis of more than 5,500 transportation projects found states in the first phase of receiving recovery money expect to spend 50 percent more per person in areas with the lowest unemployment than in communities with the highest. The transportation money was supposed to help create jobs and help areas hit hard by the recession, but early spending plans favor counties that have lower unemployment rates, the analysis found.

LaHood has said he believes jobs created by transportation projects benefit an entire region, not just the county where road or bridge work is performed. He praised the impact that more than $10 billion in transportation projects paid for with stimulus money has had on saving and creating jobs.

His office noted the $1.5 billion in grants he will control allows him to commit some of that money for projects that “quickly create and preserve jobs and stimulate rapid increase in economic activity.”

“The secretary has made economic recovery a top priority, and helping the hardest hit parts of the country should be a consideration in all decision making,” said agency spokesman Bill Adams.

The grants are available to pay for improvements to roads, bridges, ports, transit and other infrastructure considered “major impact” projects. The grants would range from $20 million to $300 million, although LaHood would have the discretion to award smaller grants for projects in towns and counties.

John Carroll, mayor of Perry County, Tenn., said he hopes money becomes available for a 20-mile, four-lane road connecting Linden to Interstate 40. The project, estimated at more than $160 million, would open the economically depressed area to business development, he said.

“Once the road is in place, it helps level the playing field,” said Carroll.

About one in four workers doesn’t have a job in Carroll’s central Tennessee county, and so far the area hasn’t received federal stimulus money for any major road or bridge projects. Carroll said if his county doesn’t qualify for grants from LaHood, he hopes state money becomes available from projects paid for with stimulus money.

“At least we could get the wheels turning,” he said.

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