AABP Award 728x90

Stimulating patches


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The $789 billion federal stimulus package could mean smooth streets for Greater Des Moines.

Whether putting an asphalt skin on those streets translates to more jobs and improvements to other infrastructure, such as repairing deficient bridges, is another question.

The Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) launched a series of public meetings that began Feb. 12 and continue this week to discuss spending roughly $17 million in stimulus funds targeted for infrastructure improvements in Central Iowa.

By and large, the list consists of ready-to-go projects that were moved to the top of wish lists because they were just that, ready to go. They were out of the engineering and design stage, but were not necessarily causing sleepless nights for city and county engineers with other, more pressing needs on their mind.

The package of proposed spending had to fall within the guidelines of the legislation and President Barack Obama’s repeated focus on “shovel-ready” projects.

Local planners came up with projects that could be launched in 90 or 180 days. As a result, crucial projects, such as bridge repair and replacement, took a back seat to some projects whose benefits are more cosmetic.

Also playing second fiddle were some projects considered crucial to economic development.

Waukee withheld a request for funding for the extension of its development-rich Alice’s Road corridor because the price tag, nearly $6 million, would have taken up too much of the stimulus package that was earmarked for Greater Des Moines, said Brad Deets, the city’s development services director.

“Part of the issue was that the MPO was trying to spread the dollars around,” Deets said. “The size and cost of our project is substantial and, if funded, several projects would have been shelved.”

In all, 19 projects are targeted for public hearings.

It is unclear how many, if any, jobs will be created or preserved by the projects.

The federal dollars targeted for Greater Des Moines represent a slice of nearly $360 million the state is expected to receive for various transportation needs, including $257.3 million for primary roads.

When ready-to-go projects were assessed, there was no consideration given to whether they saved or preserved jobs, said Dena Gray-Fisher of the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT).

However, it is possible that using stimulus funds for the projects could free up government budgets for other needs, such as repairing bridges.

“Our bridge needs haven’t changed; the needs continue to outpace our capabilities,” she said.

Gray-Fisher noted that roads suffered due to last winter’s freeze-and-thaw cycles, so resurfacing projects were necessary.

In all, Iowa is expected to receive $360 million for transportation needs, with $257.3 million of that reserved for primary roads, including four in Polk County and two in Warren County.

The DOT hasn’t abandoned bridges in its stimulus proposals. The department plans deck replacements on Interstate 80 over Walnut Creek. In all, the DOT plans to repair or replace 11 bridges in the state.

Gray-Fisher and others cautioned that until all of the details are presented in a final stimulus package, many of the preliminary proposals are best guesses.

Jeff Aldrich, an assistant Des Moines city manager, compiled projects for the city and noted that meetings were going on while he put lists together.

“There is a lot going on behind the scenes,” he said.

The city has $800 million in infrastructure projects, including improving water and sewer lines and replacing or repairing bridges, that are in various stages of design or are ready to put out for bid.

Not everyone was happy with the first list of projects. At least one local city councilman described the projects as “nonsense” from an economic development perspective.

But big-ticket items, such as construction of a bridge over Interstate 80 at the end of the Alice’s Road extension, require years of engineering and design work, not to mention environmental impact studies, before construction begins.

Polk County Engineer Kurt Bailey said nearly 30 percent of the county’s 135 bridges are in various stages of disrepair.

“We definitely have some that need attention,” Bailey said. “But the strings that were attached made it difficult to include them in the stimulus proposals. We had one ready to go, but when it came down to priorities, the one project we went with was (road) resurfacing.”

Gray-Fisher noted that the list of state and local projects was prepared in a way that “allows the state to be prepared in the event that a federal economic stimulus act requires the Iowa DOT and others to act quickly in executing work and expending funds.”

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