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For the Kraft’s Patriot Place, a golden gateway

$9m in stimulus funds urged for footbridge over Route 1

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / November 7, 2009

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The Patrick administration is pushing through a plan to spend $9 million in federal stimulus money to build a walking bridge connecting parking lots on either side of Route 1 near Gillette Stadium. The lots belong to Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, who is tied for number 468 on Forbes Magazine’s list of the world’s billionaires.

State officials decided to bypass a host of projects across the state - including road rebuilding projects in Canton, Danvers, Braintree, and Bellingham - to build the footbridge.

The bridge was included on a slate of projects, prepared by the administration, that was approved late last month by a regional planning board that determines how to spend federal transportation money in the Boston area. Most transportation projects reviewed for federal funding are evaluated by two sets of professional planners before such votes, but the bridge and some other stimulus projects on the recently approved slate received no such review.

“Is this the best use of very, very limited stimulus money for transportation, a pedestrian bridge that basically goes between two parking lots?’’ said Marc Draisen, director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, one of the planning agencies that would normally review such a project. “At this point, I don’t feel we have enough information about this project.’’

Draisen, who also has a seat on the regional planning board, voted against the latest round of stimulus projects on Oct. 29 because of his concerns about the process. The bridge is now under a public review period before it comes back to the planning board for final approval, most likely on Nov. 18.

In the meantime, Draisen said the administration has not adequately addressed several basic public policy questions about the project, including why the Kraft Group, owners of the Patriots and the Patriot Place mega-development that abuts the stadium, are not paying for it themselves.

Patrick officials announced earlier this year that they will use some stimulus money to help jump-start private projects. They say the bridge, which includes elevators on either side of the street, is key to spurring economic development and jobs along Route 1 in Foxborough. The Kraft Group will be responsible for maintaining it.

The use of the money in Foxborough follows a massive private investment by the Krafts, who privately financed a state-of-the-art, $325 million football stadium that opened in 2002, then built a sprawling commercial development next door several years later.

“The Kraft Group fully supports the state’s long-term economic growth initiatives and is proud to have already created thousands of jobs while privately investing nearly a billion dollars in the development of Gillette Stadium and Patriot Place in Foxborough,’’ Kraft Group spokesman Stacey James said in a prepared statement.

The Kraft Group, which referred questions to the state, has long-range plans to develop property across the street from the stadium into an office park that could house close to 1 million square feet. They have no tenant lined up, but the location is one of a handful of spots in Massachusetts large enough to lure a headquarters or research campus for a major corporation, said Greg Bialecki, the state’s secretary of housing and economic development. He also pointed out that the bridge will provide access between two public sidewalks.

State officials said it will provide a public safety and traffic benefits on game days, when fans stream across the wide road to get to the stadium, slowing the flow of vehicles.

Bialecki said he worked with former state transportation secretary James A. Aloisi Jr. to have the bridge placed on the slate of stimulus projects. The state’s regional planning boards are responsible for reviewing the state’s use of $800 million in federal stimulus money for transportation.

The Kraft Group’s role, if any, in seeking the federal money is not clear. But as recently as March, the Kraft Group was working with Foxborough’s town manager on trying to get state funds for the bridge, according to minutes from a selectmen’s meeting posted on the town’s website.

Bialecki said Massachusetts is losing out to states like North Carolina and Texas in the competition for companies because of a historic reluctance to use public money to improve infrastructure around private development.

“That is a habit that the Patrick administration is trying very hard to break,’’ Bialecki said.

He said the state has previously spent $70 million on public improvements in the area around the stadium and the shopping complex, yielding private investments of $800 million from the Kraft Group.

The town of Foxborough, though supportive of the bridge project, has not been willing to spend its own money on it.

President Obama introduced the stimulus spending plan last year as a means of jump-starting the economy with shovel-ready projects that will create jobs quickly. But the state has no timeline for attracting jobs to the proposed office park across from Patriot Place.

In response to written questions, state transportation spokesman Colin Durrant said a 1.5 million square-foot office park could create 4,000 construction jobs and 4,500 office jobs.

Construction on the bridge itself, which was once estimated to cost just $6 million, is expected to begin in the spring.

Bialecki said he urged officials to go through the state permitting process for the office park in April so they would be ready to go immediately if they had corporate interest, he said.

The Kraft Group included the bridge in its application for the office park to meet requirements for pedestrian access. Bialecki said he also believes the bridge would be an important factor in attracting a perspective tenant, because it would link the barren west side of the highway with the stores and other amenities at Patriot Place.

Bialecki said the Kraft family’s wealth was not a factor in deciding whether they should pay for the bridge. The relevant question, Bialecki said, “Is the public investment we’re making likely to increase private job creation? And if it is, then it’s a good thing to do.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

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