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Oberstar lauds stimulus as helping recovery

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BEMIDJI, Minn. -- "This is Recovery City," U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, called Bemidji after a tour Thursday of millions of dollars in federal stimulus projects.

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From the $100,000 brand-new Paul Bunyan Transit bus used for the tour to stopping to wrap his knuckle on new sewer pipe going in along Irvine Avenue, Oberstar said the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is doing what it should do.

"This is all-encompassing recovery," said the chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, saying the jobs the construction provides will lift the local economy.

"The direct jobs are the first impact," Oberstar said in an interview as he stepped off a Delta Connection regional jet onto the Bemidji Regional Airport's new stimulus-funded ramp.

"And not only the contractor, but those of the supply chain -- the ready mix, the aggregate supply," he said. "They had to tear out 30- to 40-year old water and sewer lines here and replace those so the pipe producer jobs are created."

He noted that as the $2.6 million Irvine Avenue project is completed, there will be landscaping.

"That's the first impact -- the lasting impact is opportunity to be competitive," Oberstar said. "Without these upgrades, without this (airport) parking apron, you can't station certain capacity aircraft like this CRJ (regional jet), or a DC-9 or 737 or a 757.

"This means that communities like Bemidji, Chisholm/Hibbing, International Falls, St. Cloud or Duluth can remain competitive in today's marketplace," he added. "Without aviation, you're really a backseat community."

Bemidji Regional Airport Authority Executive Director Harold "Van" Leeuwen said the regional jets have been flying at near capacity with 50 or 51 passengers each flight, and mostly business travel. He expects enplanements to soar as high as 3,000 passengers this month.

The airport has already undergone $16 million in federally funded expansion and rebuilding of runways, as well as $1.6 million in electrical system upgrades. Planned, and some with federal stimulus funding, is a terminal expansion and renovation and providing infrastructure to the airport's Job Opportunity Building Zones site.

Leeuwen told Oberstar that water and sewer will be fully extended to eight building sites in the West JOBZ site, ready for aviation-type businesses.

Officials boarded the new Paul Bunyan Transit bus and toured the U.S. Highway 2 work site near Wilton, where bridges will be taken out and the road bed lowered 8 feet, said Craig Collison, state Department of Transportation assistant district engineer. A concrete box culvert will be put in place for a county trail to go under the new highway.

Workers were preparing the site Thursday, with construction to begin Monday for the $2.8 million project, with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"We looked at projects we could get out," Collison said, adding the Wilton job will provide about 56 jobs and is one of five stimulus projects in the MnDOT northwest Minnesota district. "We thought it wouldn't help just to do asphalt. We looked for projects with a lasting effect."

Also stimulus projects are $5.1 million in roadwork in the Deer River area along U.S. Highway 2, $150,000 signal replacement at Ridgeway Avenue and Paul Bunyan Drive, $132,000 for signal replacement in Cass Lake, and interchange and rest area sign replacement along Highway 2.

The signal at Ridgeway and Paul Bunyan is too old to update and will be replaced with Americans with Disabilities Act-approved signals with a voice that tells people how much time they have to cross the street, Collison said.

The bus traveled down Irvine Avenue, where City Engineer Craig Gray told Oberstar that the $2.6 million 1.5-mile project will take $1.6 million in federal economic stimulus funds and $1 million in city funds for waterworks.

"Last winter we had 12 to 14 homes whose water supply froze up," Gray said. "We will be solving a lot of water issues for a lot of homeowners."

Unique about the project is that normally such waterworks improvements will cause a $3,000 to $4,000 assessment to homeowners, but the stimulus funds will allow the infrastructure to be placed without an assessment, he said.

The work is providing 60 to 70 full-time jobs, he said, which will last four to five months. Workers are working four 10-hour days.

"This is just a heartwarming story," said Oberstar, who stopped to talk with workers and to inspect the old and new sewer and water pipes stacked up along the street side. He used his cell phone to take pictures of construction work, which he e-mailed back to committee staff in Washington.

"I want them to see the recovery money at work," Oberstar said. "Knee-jerk critics say this money is short term, but all construction is short term. It leaves behind a benefit for 40 or 50 years."

Minnesota ranks 32nd of 51 states and the District of Columbia in its use of federal stimulus funds for transportation projects, Oberstar said. It has 57 percent of the funds obligated and $120 million under construction. The work has provided 2,130 jobs and is expected to add 12,500 jobs when fully geared up and $502 million in federal stimulus monies spent.

"That's an extraordinary start," he said. "Consider that the president only signed the bill Feb. 17, and this is roughly 140 days from the time that allocations were made. The federal government did its part -- the money went out, states were notified, airport authorities were notified, water and sewer districts were notified."

The process has to take place of awarding bids and getting contractors on site, he said.

"Those bids have been coming in 25 to 30 percent below project cost estimates," Oberstar said. "That $502 million that Minnesota's allocated will stretch at least another $100 million worth than the state was allocated. And it's 100 percent federal money, so they're really going to do more projects in the complete rollout of the program than were anticipated originally."

He believes the original estimate of 12,500 new jobs may be exceeded by 30 percent.

"By Labor Day, I think we'll have a quarter of a million jobs nationwide, given the pace at which projects are let, construction work getting underway -- it's happening all over the country."

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