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MoDOT and other local agencies share their wish lists to Santa Obama

This article first appeared in th St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 24, 2008 - Christmas might come early in 2009 -- or at least that's what local and state government officials are hoping, and planning, for.

Many of them have been busy putting together what St. Louis County Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls laughingly called a "Christmas wish list," a compilation of projects they hope they can get funded from the federal recovery program.

The wish list came about after the incoming administration contacted the U.S. Conference of Mayors and suggested that its members begin collecting ideas and getting them ready to send. There are no specific guidelines for local governments, but officials are focusing on projects to modernize the infrastructure or create jobs.

Economists have now suggested that the federal economic recovery plan could cost as much as $1 trillion over two years. Obama's team originally projected the figure at $600 billion.

MSD has already submitted its list with projects totaling $163.7 million to local members of Congress, Lance LeComb, the agency's spokesman said.

"By definition, (the projects) have to be shovel-ready, and we're certainly shovel-ready with them," LeComb said.

The lists includes $35 million to expand the Lemay waste-water treatment plant and $20 million for sewer improvements in unincorporated west St. Louis County, he said.

"The projects are spread throughout the area and are focused on collection and treatment projects for the sanitary sewer system -- mainly because those are projects that deliver a benefit for the environment as well as protecting public health and safety," he said.

In addition, MSD is under pressure to meet certain federal regulations in some of the projects, he added. "The quicker we can do them, the better it is for everyone," he said. "Projects of $163 million would obviously have a big impact on our community."

Pete Rahn, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, cautioned that Congress has not yet passed a bill and no funding is in place. "Without a bill, there's no deadline, but we're ready to go," he said. "If they give us money, we're ready to build projects."

MoDOT has a list of 34 projects that the state would like to included in a stimulus package, Rahn said. Click here to see the list.  Among the St. Louis area projects are:

* $49 million to extend Page Avenue from Jungermannn Road to west of Central School Road,

* $1 million to improve Old St. Charles Road,

* $8 million to add turn and auxiliary lanes from Route 40/Interstate 64 to St. Luke's Hospital Drive in west St. Louis County and

* $1 million for pedestrian improvements on Route AC from Route 67 to Interstate-270.

* MoDOT has also joined with St. Louis County to propose a $180 million extension of Highway 141.

MoDOT's projects cover more than just highways and bridges and include airports, ports and mass transit, Rahn added.

Seventeen projects, some not scheduled until four years from now, are already in the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) and could be accelerated, Rahn said. "We can move them into the current construction season, and then we would have to backfill those projects with new projects selected later." The other 17 projects such as repairs to the Interstate highways are not in the STIP and are not yet funded but would be needed later, he said.

While other projects are important, the projects on the list are ones that can be under contract within 180 days, he said.

St. Charles County officials are hoping to use federal economic stimulus funds for highway projects, both state and local.

St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann said the county has been working with MoDOT on the matter and that further work on the Page Avenue extension, a $49 million project, is high on the list.

"Even though we've known for years there's no money available to do the Page extension, we've continued to push for MoDOT to do the design work and get the right-of-way so we would be ready to go."

The talk about submitting "shovel-ready" projects has limited the county's options, Ehlmann said. Other important projects aren't far enough along to create a stimulus quickly, he added.

"That's what we look for money for in St. Charles County. That's what we need from MoDOT and Jefferson City -- money for highways."

Patrick McKeehan, executive director of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, the economic development organization for Madison and St. Clair counties, said his agency is also compiling a list of projects. But he adds a note of realism.

"There are 50 states and 400-plus congressional districts. If we here in this small area come up with a list of 200 or 300 projects and you replicate that over (400 districts), there will be a huge list or projects, and I just don't see that the money will be divided in that way," he said.

Instead, he thinks the money will be channeled to specific agencies such as highway departments for road construction, the Economic Development Administration for community development and sewer projects and the Environmental Protection Agency for environmental clean-up.

"There will always be new projects that could be added, based on changes in decisions and additional funding is available," he said. "I'm sure we'll be tweaking the list up until the final deadline," he said.

Meanwhile, Earls is eager for the economic recovery program to be in place.

"I can't wait," Earls said. "It's the anticipation of the big game. We could use a little good news in the heart of America."

Kathie Sutin is a freelance writer in St. Louis.