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Officials weigh stimulus options

As Congress debates the merits of a proposed $825 billion stimulus package, which contains some $2 billion earmarked for Oregon, local community leaders are considering where the funds could best be spent.

Although no one knows precisely how the money would be distributed, let alone how it could be used, they say they can use whatever they can get for schools, roads, mass transit and retraining for jobless residents.

"The federal package is both a stimulus and lifeline for the state of Oregon," stressed state Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, co-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "We're facing devastating cuts in education, health care, transportation, public safety.

"There are a lot of holes to fill," he added. "We have to turn this economy around.

"We have to get back to the point where people are working and being able to take care of families and helping keep our communities strong."

The numbers floating around Congress include $747 million to help Oregon balance its budget; $350 million for roads and bridges; $340 million for public schools; $68 million to expand and modernize mass transit systems; $65.5 million to upgrade and build new water and sewer plants, and $33 million to retrain people who have lost their jobs.

Over at the Rogue Valley Transportation District, general manager Julie Brown reports the district may receive as much as $2.1 million under the House bill being voted on today.

RVTD's "wish list" includes replacing vehicles as well as new roofs on bus shelters and the district's office building, which leaks, she said.

"One of the challenges the district has is having to match capital projects,' she said. "If we have to come up with matches for any project, that could be difficult because our number one priority is service."

However, it appears no matching funds will be required for purchasing new vehicles, she said.

"We're still trying to find out what we're allowed to do with the funding," she said.

There are plenty of areas where local roads and bridges can be improved, observed Mike Montero, chair of the Rogue Valley Area Commission on Transportation.

"There is tremendous need," he said, although adding, "Frankly, it ($350 million) is not very much money if you are going to spread it around the state. But it will be welcomed."

Art Anderson, area manager for Jackson and Josephine counties for the Oregon Department of Transportation, agreed. His department has put together a roughly $10 million stimulus-funded list that includes grinding and inlaying both north and south lanes of Interstate 5 between milepost 11 and 18, a culvert replacement project on old Highway 99 south of Ashland, repaving a portion of Highway 62 between Poplar Drive and Avenue H in White City and repaving portions of Highway 99 entering Grants Pass and Highway 238 between Grants Pass and Murphy.

"We've been hearing a lot of rumors and talk for several months about the stimulus package," he said. "We started putting together various projects throughout the state we could deliver in a very short time."

The Jackson County Roads and Parks Department also is looking at projects that could be shovel-ready quickly, said director John Vial.

"What we've been able to glean so far is that the projects have to be ready to go out the door in 90 days," he said, noting that projects requiring permits, right-of-way agreements or environmental studies would not meet that deadline.

"We're focusing on overlays — repaving on some of our county roads," he said of the stimulus money. "Those are projects we can get out the door very quickly."

Like Anderson, Vial noted it is far cheaper to repair roads than to build new ones.

"Right now, when we sit down to list needed road overlays, the list very quickly exceeds any money we foresee ever getting," he said.

At the Medford School District, Superintendent Phil Long said the district, like most school districts in the region, is scrambling for operating money just to finish the school year. He hopes some of the stimulus funds can be used to fill that void.

For instance, his district needs $3 million to $6 million, he said.

"Unless something happens, all districts will have to make some radical budget cuts just to finish the remaining five months of the year," he said, reiterating, "and that's just to keep our schools going."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.