CHRISTMAS IN FEBRUARY 


Any congressional bill in the 650-page range has something in it for you to love — or hate. The American Recovery and Investment Act, or H.R. 1, is no different. The $825 billion-plus stimulus package is a cornucopia of legalese, inscrutable tax cuts and mind-bogglingly detailed line-item appropriations with frightening amounts of zeros. On Jan. 28, President Obama's first legislative push passed the House of Representatives on a largely party-line vote, with every Republican voting nay.

Next it goes to the U.S. Senate, where it will once again be dissected and reconfigured, with new stimuli in and old stimuli out. And then the differences between the House and Senate versions will have to be hashed out, and then there'll be another round of votes before it reaches Obama's desk, probably later this month.

Almost certainly, the final version will feature some embarrassing pork project that will become fodder for next fall's political ads. That's how these things work. Already, multimillion-dollar kitties for STD prevention, contraception and arts funding have become straw men for conservatives bent on knocking the popular new president down a peg.

But ultimately, it won't be those members of Congress deciding where the money goes. It will be federal and (more importantly) state bureaucrats figuring out how to spend massive amounts of federal funds as quickly as possible on projects that are at least passably justifiable, job-producing and ready to go. And of course, Central Florida's local governments are already lined up at the trough, waiting to get their snouts in the goods.

"We're waiting to see what the guidelines are," says Mark Jeffries, Orange County's director of public affairs (and sort-of lobbyist coordinator). The county has firms in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. — where they've landed the influential Podesta Group — laying the groundwork. So is the city of Orlando. Last week, housing director Lelia Allen flew to the nation's capital, presumably to seek out a chunk of the bill's urban development allotment.

And the city, the county, LYNX and the Florida Department of Transportation have all published lengthy, detailed wish lists of projects for which they'd love the federal government to shell out some cash, along with their estimates of how many jobs each would create. (And no, the downtown venues aren't among them. Why? The city says the performing arts center and the Citrus Bowl aren't yet "shovel-ready," so they don't qualify. And since the city has already taken out more than $300 million in loans for the events center, it can't ask the feds to build that either.)

Not all of these projects will get federal money; in fact, most of them probably won't. But these lists offer you a glimpse of how this abstract stimulus money will be spent in real-world ways, on projects close to home.

Some of the big-ticket items on the city's list: a $20 million upgrade to the Orlando International Airport, which will supposedly create 100 jobs. The $23 million streetscaping of South Street downtown and $16 million streetscaping of Edgewater Drive, which the city says will add 246 and 176 jobs, respectively. A streetscaping of Mills Avenue, which would net 353 jobs for $33 million. The city wants $25.3 million to erect a permanent home for the Nap Ford Community School, a Parramore charter that was once a source of heated debate `see "Nap Ford school by the numbers," Dec. 23, 2004`. The list's most expensive item is the proposed $84.3 million renovation of Edgewater High School. The city also wants $70 million to spruce up the Downtown Bus Rapid Transit circulator, or Lymmo.

There are literally hundreds of smaller projects, ranging from a $35,589 upgrade for a new Center for Drug Free Living, to a $50,000 demolition of a Griffin Park building, to a $2 million homeless assistance drop-in center, to a $6.7 million men's homeless shelter, to a $3.2 million request for video cameras inside police cars. The entire list adds up to more than $590 million, which the city says would produce 7,242 jobs. It does not know how much of its wish list might be granted.

The transportation department's list is exactly what you'd expect — page after page of huge, multimillion-dollar road projects (locally, State Road 50 would see more than $142 million worth of fixing up if FDOT got its way). The FDOT's cumulative total is just under $7 billion, or less than 1 percent of the total spending in the House stimulus bill.

Orange County's wish list tops $745 million, of which $500 million would be dedicated to transportation projects. Notable here is the $56.7 million the county wants for "bicycle and pedestrian mobility projects," $7.2 million for solar panels and $1 million to make the courthouse more energy-efficient.

Its priciest items include a $36 million proposed interchange for Innovation Way and State Road 528 — a controversial project that could lead to big development in east Orange County `see "A road runs through it," Dec. 11, 2008` — the $40 million widening of Alafaya Trail, $45 million for unnamed infrastructure improvements in the Lake Susannah area and $80 million for new fire hydrants.

LYNX's request package, by contrast, is small — 10 items for $22.5 million. Perhaps reflecting the sad lack of regard this region has for mass transit, it shows an agency struggling to survive. For instance, it wants $2 million to replace buses that have racked up more than 700,000 miles. The agency wants $2 million for "smart bus" technology — onboard credit-card swipers and screens to tell you when the next bus (and maybe one day, commuter-rail train) is coming — and $2.25 million for alternative fuel equipment and a green-certified facility. It's also seeking $4.5 million to buy hybrid buses for the Lymmo downtown circulator and $1 million "to purchase smaller cost efficient bus circulator vehicles to service areas where fixed routes have been eliminated due to funding shortfalls."

It's worth mentioning that LYNX isn't asking for light rail or rapid transit money — instead, it's looking to get off life support. Whether or not it will get what it wants is an open question.

jbillman@orlandoweekly.com

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