Town survives cut for stimulus money3/12/09

Federal funds would pay for paving, sidewalks

March 12, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Williston has cleared the first hurdle for getting a slice of federal economic stimulus money to fund road and sidewalk projects. But with dozens of other Vermont towns clamoring for money, it’s still uncertain if Williston will win a share.

The town sought $3.9 million for repaving portions of Marshall Avenue, Mountain View Road and Oak Hill Road. The money would also fund construction of sidewalk segments along Vermont 2A and Mountain View Road.

The Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization has over the past few weeks vetted more than 70 funding requests from area municipalities. The list was winnowed by eliminating projects that wouldn’t ordinarily be eligible for federal highway funding or that weren’t “shovel ready,” or fully permitted, said CCMPO Executive Director Michele Boomhower.

Williston’s proposed projects qualified for a piece of the $131 million in stimulus money Vermont will receive for transportation projects. But competition for those dollars will be fierce: Towns around the state proposed projects totaling roughly $500 million, said John Zicconi, spokesman for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

“The expectations for this money far exceed the funding,” he said. “We just don’t have enough money to do everything.”

The stimulus money will be doled out in two phases. The first round will be designated for projects that can be “obligated,” or ready for bidding, within 180 days. The second phase will be set aside for projects that can be ready within a year.

The Agency of Transportation recently released a list of 30 projects that would be funded in the first phase. The list mostly involves paving and bridge repairs on state roads, projects the state is sure can meet the shorter deadline.

But Zicconi noted that the list includes $18 million for town highways and bridges, including the Bridge Street crossing over the Winooski River in Richmond. Work on the bridge started Monday.

The second phase of funding, about $80 million, will be set aside for the longer-range projects. Zicconi said projects will be drawn from lists submitted by the CCMPO, the state’s only regional planning organization, and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

Zicconi said the state’s list of proposed projects would cost roughly $85 million. But he said the list will be narrowed to fund roughly half those projects, leaving most of the stimulus money for locally proposed work. The federal government has mandated that $44 million of the stimulus money be spent on projects that can be ready within six months.

Williston Public Works Director Neil Boyden said he hopes the federal money will help stretch his paving and sidewalks-building budgets. The town will still seek state grants, but he worries the budget crisis leaves little chance of receiving money this year.

“I will apply for other grants, but I’m skeptical if there will be other money available given the state’s woes,” Boyden said.

The town has budgeted about $400,000 for repaving projects over the next two construction seasons. Boyden said the stimulus money would allow the town to repave longer stretches of planned roads and perhaps add others.

One project that is not eligible for stimulus funding is the long-delayed Williston segment of the Circumferential Highway. The four-mile bypass is still tied up in the permitting process and so cannot meet even the longer of the two deadlines.

As for sidewalks, Williston can draw on $2.6 million in bond money that voters approved five years ago. But that money can only be spent on designated segments and in some cases only for a local match of a state or federal grant.

The town already had plans to complete one segment on Mountain View Road, running from North Williston Road to Old Stage Road, in the upcoming construction season. Boyden said stimulus money would help pay for the Mountain View work and additional segments on Vermont 2A.

“We have all kinds of needs, but just a limited amount of money,” he said.

Sidewalks are considered “enhancement” projects under the federal stimulus legislation. Zicconi said the state is required to spend $3.8 million of the stimulus money for those projects, which in addition to sidewalks could include other transportation-related improvements such as new street lights. The stimulus bill also requires enhancement projects to be ready for bids within a year.

Zicconi said the state Legislature will likely consider the state’s list of phase one projects in coming days. Then the Agency of Transportation will narrow the list of local proposals.

Though the stimulus rules allow up to a year to begin some of the work — and up to three years to complete it — Zicconi said the state hopes to beat those deadlines.

“We are all aware the money is meant to create jobs and stimulate the economy,” he said. “So we are going to get things going as soon as we can.”