Barack Obama will become the 44th President of the United States on January 20, 2009 — the first African-American elected to the position. Many locals will make the trip to Washington, D.C., to watch the historic event. Others will watch from here in Kansas.
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As Barack Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States, most political observers are betting that his administration’s signature piece of legislation is already in the hopper.
Even before it has been hatched, the expected economic stimulus package is being labeled as the largest public works project since the creation of the U.S. interstate system.
But what will it produce for our region?
Regional leaders recently said it may be easier to predict what it won’t produce: a massive singular project like the interstate system that became a transformational force in American life.
“Part of the message from the president-elect has been that speed will be of the essence,” said Mell Henderson, director of transportation for the Mid-America Regional Council. “A lot of the projects ready to go right now are meat-and-potatoes, basic repair and expansion projects.”
The big picture
Henderson, whose organization does planning for the K.C. metro area, said such repair projects are important, but he also feels a pang of regret.
“Look at any list being put together by a city or by a state department of transportation, and the projects focus on what is ready to go,” Henderson said. “But those may not be the most strategic projects we can spend the money on. In addition to the immediate stimulus, it would seem that you would want whatever is being created to produce future economic activity for years to come.”
Case in point: The interstate system.
Just try to calculate the economic impact the interstate system — and the ease of travel it created — has brought to the U.S. over the last 50 years, Henderson said.
“It would be enormous,” he said.
But those government officials on the front lines of battered budgets don’t seem to be feeling any such regret. City Manager David Corliss said he would be fine with a stimulus package that had a heavy emphasis on repairing and maintaining infrastructure that the country already has.
Pay it forward
“If the federal government and state governments make good investments in our infrastructure, we’ll be money ahead,” Corliss said. “We’ll be paying ourselves forward.”
Plus, Corliss said he thinks the public recognizes the importance of such investments. They did in Lawrence, anyway. A new sales tax to address aging city infrastructure won 70 percent of the vote — and carried every precinct in the city.
Voters in Lawrence also approved a new sales tax to fund public transit. Henderson said transit projects may end up being a big winner in the stimulus package as well.
But again, it probably won’t be transit projects on a grand scale.
For example, it would be difficult to put together a nationwide light-rail system that could begin construction in short order. Heck, after years of talk, the Kansas City metro area doesn’t have a light rail plan it soon could begin building either, Henderson said.
Instead, Henderson said, his organization is looking at smaller projects that would increase the frequency or reach of existing transit services. In Lawrence, city leaders may try to win stimulus money that could be used to replace the city’s aging fleet of buses.
There are plenty of other local projects that can be submitted, too, and Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said they can affect Lawrence’s future.
He said he particularly hopes the community will soon own the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant site and will be able to ask for stimulus money to turn it into a state-of-the-art business park.
“That is a project that could help the environment by cleaning up a blighted piece of property, and it certainly could stimulate the economy here,” Weinaug said. “That might fit with what the administration is wanting to do.”
On the road
Several big ticket infrastructure projects also are showing up on lists that may be submitted to the feds. The Kansas Department of Transportation has a new interchange at Bob Billings Parkway and the South Lawrence Trafficway on its list of projects. It also lists a $100 million project to add two lanes of traffic to a six-mile stretch of Kansas Highway 10. Henderson said KDOT hasn’t been specific about which six miles would get the new lanes.
In Lawrence, a big ticket item on the city’s capital improvements plan is an $80 million sewer treatment plant south of the Wakarusa River. The city has the land already purchased for the project, but has pulled back as a result of the economic slowdown.
On a smaller scale, the city has several projects that would cost several million dollars. Those include: a $2 million project to improve drainage at the intersection of 23rd Street and Ousdahl Road; $4.6 million to rebuild Kasold Drive from Sixth Street to Bob Billings Parkway; $2.25 million to build a new evidence and storage processing facility for the Lawrence Police Department; and $6.8 million to extend 31st Street from Haskell Avenue to O’Connell Road.
State Rep. Tom Sloan, a Lawrence Republican who chairs the House’s Vision 2020 committee, said he hopes the region receives more than just assistance with roads, bridges and other traditional infrastructure projects. He said investment in new high-speed telecommunication fiber could lead to advances in rural development and the promotion of tele-medicine. He also said the region would benefit from more research dollars being devoted to emerging technologies.
“It may not have the same immediate benefits, but research can produce tremendous benefits down the line,” Sloan said.
Regionally, the Mid-America Regional Council has been soliciting projects from communities in the Kansas City metro area. Currently, they’ve received about $6 billion worth of ideas, said Jody Ladd Craig, public affairs director for the organization.
Many are road and infrastructure projects, but there are some that break from that mold.
Those include: $5 million to purchase a regional emergency radio system that would allow all communities in the metro area to communicate with one another; $17.5 million to restore urban forests, create rain gardens and other projects that would improve stormwater drainage throughout the metro; $4 million to install solar panels on selected schools and public-owned buildings in the metro area; $1.5 million to expand the hours of operation at “safety net” health clinics in the metro area; and $10 million to hire additional teachers and support staff to add 1,500 metro-area children to the Head Start early learning program.