Business and Economy

State Eager for More Federal Transportation Funds

Congress is considering a new Jobs Bill that could steer about $36 million for roadway projects and transit initiatives in Tennessee’s direction. The real idea “is to get jobs created just as quickly as possible,” said the state’s transportation department head.

Tennessee transportation officials told lawmakers this week they’re hoping the Volunteer State will get another round of federal stimulus-type money for road and highway construction projects.

“There is talk of a second, what they call a Jobs Bill,” Commissioner Gerald Nicely told a state House committee Tuesday in Nashville. “It passed the (U.S.) House in December and would be about the same size as the stimulus that passed in February of 2009.”

Tennessee’s chunk could be about $27 million for roadway projects and another $9 million for public transit initiatives and efforts, he said.

“I think we’re going to know something in the next three or four weeks whether or not it’s going to fly because the whole idea is to get jobs created just as quickly as possible,” Nicely said.

The state’s unemployment rate, which had seen declines every month from a peak of 10.8 percent in June, jumped back up to 10.9 percent in December, an increase of 0.7 percent from November.

Nicely claimed that the work-making effects of new stimulus funding would be seen almost immediately. Under the draft language of the bill, Nicely said, states would have to obligate the money to construction contracts within 90 days. Governments were given 120 days to obligate the funding after receiving last year’s stimulus money.

“That would be a challenge, but we’re prepared to do it,” Nicely added. “We’re already looking at projects.”

He said 315 projects across the state were paid from the last round of stimulus money.

Nicely added that not all of the money the state received in 2009 has been assigned to projects yet, but assured the House Transportation Committee that plans are in place to spend the remaining funds by the federal government’s March 2 deadline.

A portion of the money went to the 11 Tennessee Metropolitan Planning Organizations in the state, which handle local and regional projects in urban areas of 50,000 or more. The MPO’s have yet to obligate a little over $800,000 in stimulus funds.

If the MPO’s fail to finalize their spending priorities by the federal deadline, TDOT’s state projects will take their place to prevent the state from losing stimulus funds, said Nicely.

The areas in which the stimulus funds were spent were guided by the language in the federal bill, TDOT spokeswoman Julie Oaks said in an email.

“The Recovery Act bill encouraged the use of funds in Economically Distressed areas,” she wrote. “TDOT developed a selection criteria for projects and did look at those in ED areas, however the biggest requirement was that a project be ready to go to contract. We also worked to balance the funds across the state in every way (north/south; east/middle/west; urban/rural).”

Nicely told the committee that 72 percent of funds are going to “economically distressed” areas throughout the state where the unemployment rate is higher than the national average, or average incomes are no more than 80 percent of the national average.

“A lot of states used a great deal of this money for just basic maintenance stuff like paving,” he said. “We had a good variety…road projects, bridge projects, and we distributed it across the state.”

Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development Communications Director Jeff Hentschel said it is impossible to tell exactly how many construction jobs were directly created by the stimulus funding due to the way statistics are gathered by the department.

If Congress passes the latest jobs bill, the spending of the latest round of funding would again be guided by the language in the federal bill, Oaks said.

U.S. Senate leadership announced Thursday that they think they’re close to an agreement on the bill and expect to bring the legislation to the floor next week.

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