Message from Congress is to lower expectations

Lower the expectations was the message sent Friday morning at a meeting in downtown Kansas City between members of the Mid-America Regional Council and representatives of local Congressional leaders.
MARC has spent the last couple of weeks compiling a list of potential projects that could be funded through a federal economic stimulus package that is being discussed by the Obama Transition Team.
MARC Transportation Director Mell Henderson said about 70 to 90 percent of government entities from around the area submitted a list of about 1,000 projects that totaled nearly $6 billion. Henderson said the projects submitted appear to be sorely needed projects.
“We don’t think this is a wish list,” Henderson said. “We think people are very serious about looking at projects that are ready to go.”
Using conservative estimates, Henderson said the local entities in Missouri could receive between $150 million and $500 million.
“This interest really dwarfs the amount of resources that we are likely to see as a region,” Henderson said. “Those are big numbers and that’s a lot of money, and we could do a lot of good stuff with that. But it is far short of $6 billion.”
Henderson said his committee’s focus is primarily on transportation legislation, but the focus soon changed last month when stimulus talks began.
Henderson said MARC didn’t want to be behind schedule if funding is approved quickly.
“Depending on how economic stimulus funds may come forward and flow, it’s possible that MARC might find itself in the position that it has a role to play in making decisions on projects that receive economic stimulus funding,” Henderson said. “We didn’t want to wait and be caught flat-footed, because speed will be of the essence.”
MARC Executive Director David Warm told the representatives that they are hoping the federal government takes a different approach to transportation with the stimulus.
“I hope all of you carry that message back,” Warm said. “I think the broader message, and hope, is that it is not more of the same. I think the economic crisis we’re in underscores the need to have more of a return on our investment in transportation.”
Henderson said most of the projects submitted would be ready to go in 90 days. Henderson speculated that many of the estimates might have been optimistic; considering the speed of the process. Henderson and some others warned that the most needed projects may have not made the list, and that quickly moving on projects could force a spike in costs and materials. Henderson suggested that stimulus projects be awarded in phases.
“I expect there will be a high level of public scrutiny over the projects that are selected,” Henderson said. “It could allow more time to prepare a more strategic set of projects.”
Henderson said waiving or reducing matching costs is also something that MARC would suggest.
Congressman Ike Skelton’s Chief of Staff Bob Hagedorn said Congress is looking at 90-day shovel-ready projects. He said he doesn’t expect a bill until mid-February and also said he expects it to be loaded with Medicaid funding and tax incentives. Hagedorn also cautioned that expectations might be high.
Congressman Sam Graves’ Deputy Chief of Staff Melissa Roe said Graves is focused on tax cuts for small businesses.
Sen. Kit Bond’s Kansas City Regional Office Director Michael Collins said he expects stimulus funds to reach about $7 billion statewide. He said those funds would include other projects besides transportation and public works. Collins said a lot of questions would have to be answered before funds are distributed.
“If it’s not an earmark. What is it?” asked Collins. “It’s still being distributed by somebody and someone is going to have to make that ultimate decision.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill’s representative Cory Dillon said McCaskill would be looking at projects for earmarks. She said projects should be focused strictly on how many jobs it creates.
“She continues to like the idea of a competitive process with the criteria of a particular project being the number of jobs that is created,” Dillon said.
Henderson said that job creation is not reflected in the data that was collected but said it will be a focus in the following weeks.
“That is a critical piece of information that we are going to have to be able to communicate,” Henderson said.
Job creation may be an issue for many of the projects that were submitted by Richmond. Most projects submitted are with the intent of the work being performed by city employees. The city is currently under a hiring freeze.

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