Friday, June 05, 2009

Stimulus Wish List Simply Doesn't Add Up

$3 Billion In Fed Money For $140.7 Billion In Ideas

Just how much steak -- or pork -- can New York get for its stimulus buck?

Not all that much, apparently.

Sure, $3 billion sounds like a lot of money, but a few million here, and several million there, and, before you know it, there's really not much left to go around.

Certainly, there's not much cash left to fix Long Island's crumbling infrastructure, from cratered roadways to antiquated sewer systems, or to remediate brownfields and create affordable housing, high up on the "wish list" of many LIers.

Funding New York's public schools -- from the local districts to the State University -- would have been nice, thus bolstering public education statewide, from cradle through college, while, potentially, reducing the local property tax burden.

Using some of that money to consolidate local government (it does cost money to save money), streamline the delivery of services, and modernize aging facilities, would have made sense. Then again, under the theory of "everything local, stays local," why use fed money to solve a local problem, which, in the eyes of the folks who run local taxing jurisdictions such as sanitary districts and water districts, is really no problem at all.

A hand up to improve the dismal state of Long Island's inadequate mass transit network would have come in handy. Surely, a public transit system LIers could rely upon would reduce our dependence on the automobile (relieving congestion on the always clogged roadways and benefiting the environment through cleaner air) and make public access, a necessary core of a smart growth agenda, an opportunity, rather than a detour.

Of course, the MTA will get a $195.4 million hand out instead, leaving the rest of us to watch the closing doors (or was it, the gap?)

Then, too, Long Island's "Main Streets", long ago cast aside in favor of the big box stores and megamalls, could have used that shot in the arm stimulus dollars would have brought. The revitalization of "Downtown" is crucial, not only to Long Island's economic recovery, but to re-establishing America's first suburb as the premier place to live, work, and raise a family.

Well, maybe the next go 'round. Until then, its $112 million to reconstruct Route 112 in Suffolk, and planters, brick pavers, and Victorian-style street lamps for the rest of us (stimulus money not included).
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Long Islanders suggest projects for stimulus funds

Vision Long Island thought $3 billion in federal stimulus money ought to go to the Lighthouse redevelopment in Uniondale.

A group called the African American Media Network said $2.5 million might be enough to start up a TV station in Freeport.

And the Nassau County Firefighters Emerald Society proposed $105,000 for a monument to survivors of the Irish potato famine who drowned in shipwrecks off the South Shore.

"We said, 'Here's the platinum version,'" explained Vision Long Island director Eric Alexander of his group's pricey suggestion to state economic recovery officials last winter. "If you get copper or silver, it's better than nothing."

A trove of spending ideas

New Yorkers were asked how they would shape the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and they came through big time, delivering a brainstorm of some 18,646 ideas costing $140.7 billion. The list is posted on the state's now very crowded stimulus Web site,, under the tab "Your Ideas."

Many of those wishes are already turning into real grant and contract dollars as the stimulus money begins to flow: state recovery czar Timothy Gilchrist announced last week that New York had certified $510 million in shovel-ready road projects, passing a key milestone.

But most of them have little chance of being funded this time around, with just $1.1 billion in highway funds coming to the state, for instance.

Still, the wish list, and the flurry of public dialogue that went into making it, remains as an unexpected dividend of the economic crisis, officials say.

"This wasn't an intended consequence, but we did inadvertently create almost a catalog of capital needs for the state," said Michael Weber, a senior recovery aide. "We're in tough times, but one day we won't be, and this points to some of the places where there is actual need."

Not long after the talk began in earnest last fall about a stimulus bill, letters and e-mails began flooding into Gov. David A. Paterson's office from all over, including thousands from state agencies.

Because most of the early focus was on road projects, staff at the state Department of Transportation were put to work entering the ideas into a database. Eventually staff in the "war room" of Paterson's economic recovery cabinet took over the list as e-mails and letters continued to roll in, posting updates on the Web this spring in keeping with the law's goal of transparency.

Many ideas proposed by local governments would prove ineligible for the measure signed into law Feb. 17, such as those for stadiums or projects requiring years of planning. But recovery officials have responded to each with a letter of thanks, making an effort to steer them toward other grant or loan programs for which they might qualify.

Aid seen as opportunity Alexander says his group saw the stimulus project as a chance to focus state officials' attention on smart-growth priorities here. The group turned in 149 ideas costing some $5.8 billion, after sifting ideas solicited at its fall summit.

As for that $3 billion Lighthouse suggestion, Alexander said he meant for the money to be spent on a light-rail system serving the Nassau Hub.

Some of the items on the list have already been funded, such as the $49 million Route 112 reconstruction.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, meanwhile, will be getting $195.4 million to help provide East Side access for Long Island Railroad commuters. The state DOT's wish-list entry suggested spending $6.3 billion in stimulus funds on that project, the biggest idea on the state's list.

Copyright © 2009, Newsday Inc.

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