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Stimulus projects head for fast track

Criticized by legislative leader, governor vows road work won’t stall

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / December 9, 2009

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Criticized for being slow to spend stimulus money on transportation improvements, Governor Deval Patrick is pledging to fast-track more than two dozen projects, from Boston to Pittsfield, and will have committed all of the state’s highway money before the March 2010 deadline imposed by the federal government.

Top Patrick aides outlined the new round of spending in a letter yesterday to a powerful congressman overseeing federal stimulus spending who had sharply criticized Massachusetts for failing to allocate its $437 million allotment more quickly. In the letter, the state said that for its next round of funding it has identified 28 road projects costing $212 million that will begin in the next few months.

The projects include an $8.1 million road improvement in Quincy that will assist with a $1.4 billion redevelopment of the city’s downtown, a $12.5 million repaving of the Route 9 commercial corridor in Framingham and Natick, and a $1.7 million reconstruction of a badly rutted section of Washington Street in Somerville.

“We believe that when the final analysis is done on job creation and economic growth generated by [federal] highway investments, Massachusetts will have a record that we can be proud of and that your committee will wholly endorse,’’ stated the letter, which was signed by Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan and Jeffrey Simon, Patrick’s director of infrastructure investment.

The letter was sent to US Representative James Oberstar, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, who in October had ranked Massachusetts 49th among the states in putting the money to use, and called on Patrick to increase the pace of spending. A new review his office released last week again ranked the state 49th.

A spokesman for Oberstar’s committee welcomed the state’s letter yesterday. “Our intent was always to get the poor-performing states to get moving on these projects,’’ said the spokesman, Jim Berard. “We think this is a positive move by Massachusetts to catch up with the rest of the states.’’

Patrick’s aides said the administration’s plans for the money will pay off in the long term by targeting projects that will spur additional private investment, thus creating more jobs for unemployed Massachusetts residents. Aides said the stimulus money has provided indirect benefits by freeing up more state money for economic development projects.

One such project is the redevelopment of the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station, where Massachusetts will spend $15 million to build an access road to assist with the development. Patrick aides said state funds were freed up for the project by using federal stimulus money to pay for other local work.

The governor has been criticized for how he would spend some of the stimulus money, most notably a $9 million project to build a footbridge over Route 1 in Foxborough. The bridge would have connected two parking lots owned by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who is seeking to build a massive office development, but Patrick officials late last week reversed course and declined to provide the funds.

Aides to Patrick yesterday released an e-mail that showed officials in the Obama administration had raised concerns about the appearance of the project. The e-mails, between state and federal transportation officials, showed the Federal Highway Administration was concerned about the appearance of spending federal money on the bridge.

A Nov. 24 e-mail to the state from federal official Lucy Garliauskas also said the US Department of Transportation’s office of inspector general’s “criminal and audit sides’’ had raised a red flag about the project.

It did not elaborate; a spokesman for the inspector general, reached before the e-mails were released yesterday, could not explain what the inquiries were about. But a spokesman for the US Department of Transportation, Jill Zuckman, said there are no questions of criminal wrongdoing.

“We had concerns about spending recovery dollars on the footbridge at Gillette Stadium because it wasn’t clear the project was shovel-ready and, frankly, the optics of the project,’’ or its appearance, “were poor,’’ Zuckman wrote. “There was never a concern or suggestion about wrongdoing and ultimately, the state withdrew the project.’’

While anticipating that winter weather will delay some starts, Patrick’s aides said all the projects on the new stimulus list will start by March 10. The federal deadline requires only that states obligate their funds by March 1; it does not require the work to be underway by that date.

As of the last review by Oberstar’s committee, Massachusetts had bid out 58 percent of its stimulus money, with 26 percent to projects now under construction.

By contrast, Maine had already allocated 100 percent of its funds to projects under construction, and New Hampshire had allocated 92 percent.

Noah Bierman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.

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