WASHINGTON, D.C. — As stimulus money for transportation and infrastructure projects begins flowing into repairs, resurfacings and refurbishing around the country, there has been increased scrutiny over where, exactly, the money is going.
Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that billions in transportation stimulus cash meant to create jobs was actually missing counties that needed work the most.
The AP reviewed more than 5,500 planned transportation projects nationwide, revealing that states are planning on spending 50 percent more per person in areas with the lowest unemployment.
The projects that the AP analyzed, however, only account for about half the money set aside for states and local governments.
In Minnesota, for instance, it does not give a complete picture of where all the transportation money will ultimately be used.
But, as of the beginning of April, roughly $244 million of transportation stimulus money was mostly being used in the greater Minnesota area, outside of the Twin Cities metro area, according to AP’s analysis.
The Seventh Congressional District received the most funding at $94,430,257, followed by the Eighth at $84,688,879, the First at $58,617,000, the Sixth at $18,944,303 and the Second at $7,745,000.
Clearwater County, which has the highest unemployment rate in the state at 20.8 percent, received $1.63 million in transportation stimulus money. When matched against the funding received by the other 86 counties in Minnesota, however, Clearwater ranked 31st in overall funding and 14th in funding per capita.
Meanwhile, Nicollet County, with an unemployment rate of 6.7 percent, received $11,120,000, while Meeker and Chisago Counties, with 11.5 percent and 12.3 percent unemployment rates, respectively, received no money.
‘It is very disappointing’
In Chisago, County Engineer Joe Triplett said that the county board members are still upset that their requested projects were not funded.
“We were sort of looking to kill two birds with one stone — work on county roads and employ local people,” Triplett said. “But, as it sits now, we didn’t even hit the birds … It is very disappointing.”
But, when it comes to how transportation dollars are being used in the state, the facts are a bit more complicated, according to Abby McKenzie, Director of the Office of Investment Management at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
Although Chisago County did not specifically receive transportation money, the state is still conducting a number of stimulus-funded transportation projects within the county.
“The Minnesota Department of Transportation has many projects going on in Chisago,” McKenzie said. “We have handled this as a statewide program and it looks to me like Chisago is getting a lot of money.”
McKenzie mentioned $12.8 million for an interchange and $75,000 for a “living” snow fence made out of trees and bushes as two examples of projects that MnDOT was working on in the county.
When selecting projects, the time fame — how soon the project could get started — was one of the primary factors considered. The county location was secondary, according to MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht.
“When contractors hire crews they can come from all over the place,” said Gutknecht. “I understand what they are saying about directing money to specific geographic areas, but the intent was to create jobs.”
Jim Berard, a spokesman for Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., furthered that sentiment.
“To just say if you don’t have a shovel in your hand, you’re not going to benefit from this is not accurate,” said Berard. “We are also talking about the guy that builds the bulldozer or sells the gas and fuel. We are talking about steel makers and the trucks that deliver steel to the sites.”
Meeker County Engineer Ronald Mortensen agreed. Meeker County also did not directly receive any transportation stimulus dollars.
“I just didn’t pick the right projects [to submit],” said Mortensen. “[But] this is a bedroom community, so most of the community drives out of the county to go to work anyway.”
In an effort to get people back to work more quickly, Congress directed states to have 50 percent of their transportation stimulus funds obligated within 120 days of receiving the money. Although language was included in the bill to give preference to lower-income areas, Congress did not include any penalties for states that did not follow the suggestions.
Some county engineers in Minnesota expressed some worry that the time restraints had forced them to submit projects that might not be as big a priority as larger projects, and in the end, might not employ as many people.
“I think if there were more time allotted to spend these funds, better projects could have been picked,” said Seth Greenwood, Nicollet County’s engineer and public works director. “But, I can’t say that’s all true. Every project that got funded, they are all good projects, they all need to get done.”
According to Berard, the Transportation Committee will continue to oversee the program and closely monitor distribution of funds.
On April 22, the Metropolitan Council in St. Paul also approved about $250 million in funding for the seven-county metro area, which was not included in AP’s analysis.
Within that total, about $80 million will go directly to the counties and cities, according to spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge.
But the decision of where to build ultimately lies with the states, said Berard.
Berard further stressed that highway and bridge stimulus money represents less than 10 percent of the overall package dollars.
“It is unfair to judge the entire stimulus package by what is a relatively small part of it,” said Berard. “It is more than roads and bridges.”
Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.