Shovels at the Ready

Cities, Hamilton County line up for federal stimulus funds

Now that Congress has passed a $787 billion economic stimulus package sought by President Obama, it remains to be decided how the local portion of that money will be spent. One thing is for sure, though: There’s no shortage of ideas about what to do with it.

Get ready for a flood of numbers, all representing items that could be paid for using your tax dollars.

As of March 2, there were more than 630 potential projects submitted for consideration by the various cities, towns and villages throughout Hamilton County, including more than 140 projects submitted by the city of Cincinnati. City staffers say there were so many projects submitted in such a short amount of time that they haven’t tallied the overall price tag, but it’s hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hamilton County government has submitted more than 20 projects, totaling about $450 million.

Some of the requests, however, are duplicative because they would fall under the authority of several jurisdictions like Cincinnati, Hamilton County and area-wide groups like the Ohio-Indiana-Kentucky Regional Council of Governments.

In fact, all of the jurisdictions across Ohio have submitted a total of 14,996 projects and counting. The number far exceeds the $8.2 billion the state is expected to receive.

Of the entire $787.2 billion stimulus package, $211.9 billion is earmarked for tax cuts in a concession to Republicans. The vast majority ($575.3 billion) is spending meant for uses that will jumpstart the anemic U.S. economy and create jobs.

Obama successfully convinced lawmakers to put a few conditions on using the stimulus money. Most projects must be started within six months and completed within 18 months. The provisions are meant to inject immediate capital into the floundering economy and answer critics’ complaints that much of the spending wouldn’t occur for years.

To accommodate the quickened timeline, an emphasis is being placed on projects that are “shovel ready” — those with most of their review, planning and other preparatory work already done or nearly so.

As a result, some of the largest items submitted locally are projects that have been discussed for years. In the city of Cincinnati, that includes a $69.6 million request to help plan and construct a proposed electric streetcar system in downtown, Over-the-Rhine and the uptown area near the University of Cincinnati.

The city’s request indicates the streetcar system would cost $185 million overall and create 365 jobs. Officials estimate it would have a 14-to-1 ratio of economic impact to investment, prompting about $1.4 billion in redevelopment of vacant and under-utilized properties along the planned route.

Other large or noteworthy requests submitted by Cincinnati include:

• $30 million to build the Kennedy Connector, a new road with two bridges that would connect Duck Creek Road with Madison Road, along with widening and improving surrounding streets. Officials say the project would reduce traffic congestion in Oakley, allow several stalled economic development projects to proceed and create about 500 jobs.

• $35 million to build a new training facility for the Cincinnati Police Department, which also could be used by other police agencies in the area. The project would create 250 jobs.

• $21 million to build a one-stop “West Side Public Safety Facility” that would be used by both the Police and Fire departments. About 150 jobs would be created.

Parts of the federal stimulus program will be divvied up in different ways. Some of the money will be awarded to the state, which will review applications and decide which localities get the funds. Other funds will be distributed automatically to qualifying jurisdictions based on formulas, while some money will come in the form of competitive grants.

Funds will be distributed to state and local governments, non-profit agencies and other organizations, not directly to individuals.

Although there’s no set date yet on when decisions will be made about what projects are awarded money, a large portion should begin being disbursed by fall.

Many Republicans are divided about the stimulus money. While most GOP members of Congress voted against the spending, several Republican governors welcome the assistance.

Locally, Cincinnati City Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz — one of only two Republicans on council — has mixed feelings. She dislikes that administrators hurried the requests through City Council’s obscure Rules Committee without any public hearings.

“I didn’t see anything specific in that committee, they just told us what the process would be,” Ghiz says. “My concern is we’re not going to get public input. It’s taxpayer money, so we should get their input.”

Despite her political philosophy about limited government, Ghiz wants the city to accept whatever money it’s given.

“I may not agree with (the stimulus package), but my job is to help govern the city of Cincinnati,” she adds. “Our citizens have paid into that pot of money, so if it’s there we should use it. You don’t want to cut off your nose to spite your face.”

Meanwhile, Hamilton County’s largest request revolves around The Banks project, a shopping, entertainment and residential district slowly being built along Cincinnati’s riverfront between the Reds and Bengals stadiums.

The county is seeking $306 million for various aspects of The Banks. They include $29 million to help create a large riverfront park, $100 million to install decks above Fort Washington Way and create new developable land in the process and $177 million to complete the riverfront street grid, realign Mehring Way and relocate utilities.

“We think The Banks is the quintessential stimulus project,” Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper says. “It will lead to new jobs and tangible results quickly. It’s shovel ready, and this money would speed up parts of the project.”

Other project requests include $8 million for a neighborhood stabilization program that would allow the county to buy blighted properties and prepare them for redevelopment, $10 million to buy and clean up contaminated areas known as “brownfields,” $9.46 million for various road improvements, $6 million to build the Ancor Connector in Anderson Township that would link State Route 32 to Broadwell Road and $1 million for emergency shelter grants that would build new space for homeless people.

“We have not submitted 1,000 little projects,” Pepper says about the county’s roughly two-dozen requests. “We concentrated on the big ones that would have the most impact.”

One of those “big ones” is seeking an unspecified amount of money to upgrade freight railroad lines so they could become part of a proposed high-speed passenger rail system linking Cincinnati to Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland.

There’s been some talk by state officials of leaving Cincinnati and the southern part of Ohio out of the project.

“If they left us out, it would be a big mistake,” Pepper says. “It would be hurtful to our area. It would leave us in the Stone Age while the rest of the state moves forward.”

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