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Region ready for a quick economic fix

Repairs and a new paint job on the Girard Point Bridge. Upgraded stations on the Broad Street Subway. A rebuilt interchange for I-295, I-76 and Route 42 in South Jersey.

Repairs and a new paint job on the Girard Point Bridge. Upgraded stations on the Broad Street Subway. A rebuilt interchange for I-295, I-76 and Route 42 in South Jersey.

These are among the "ready to go" projects waiting in the wings for an anticipated public-works stimulus package from Washington early next year.

Transportation, education and construction officials in the region are readying their wish lists for Congress and the Obama administration, hoping that billions in federal funding will help jump-start the slumping economy and restore lost jobs.

President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to create or preserve 2.5 million jobs over the next two years, rebuilding roads, bridges, schools and airports, upgrading hospitals, and expanding sources of alternative energy. Democrats in Congress hope to send a spending package that could exceed $500 billion to the White House by Inauguration Day.

Obama has said he will launch "the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s."

Critics, meanwhile, say the money could saddle future generations of taxpayers with more debt without easing current economic problems.

While lawmakers are still designing a public-works bill, it's likely that states will be required to use the funds on quick-hit projects to get the money flowing to employers and workers.

Estimates vary on how many jobs are created by such spending, from about 10,000 jobs per billion dollars to 40,000 jobs per billion dollars.

Selecting projects that can proceed quickly will be a key to any successful public-works program, state officials say. Otherwise, the construction might be too late to help offset the effects of the recession.

"It has to be fast," Gov. Rendell said this week in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. "It has to be a whole lot faster than infrastructure has ever been in this country."

Pennsylvania has 319 highway and bridge projects worth $1.03 billion and New Jersey has 153 road projects worth $1.6 billion that could be started within 180 days, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

SEPTA has $158 million worth of projects that could be started quickly if money were available, including rebuilding stations at Girard and Spring Garden on the Broad Street Subway, buying 40 additional diesel-electric hybrid buses, and installing new street-level track for the Subway-Surface Green Line trolley routes.

The Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PENNVEST), which provides federal financing for sewer, storm-water and drinking-water projects, has more than $100 million in ready-to-go project requests on hand, according to executive director Paul K. Marchetti. He estimated those projects could create 3,500 jobs.

Gov. Corzine said this week that New Jersey was working to speed up the start of $4 billion of infrastructure plans, including construction on schools, roads, sewers and other projects.

He said the state had already targeted $2.8 billion of projects that could move within six months, and $1.2 billion more could be added if the federal government added funding.

Corzine yesterday told the U.S. House Appropriations Committee that a federal stimulus package for the states, including public infrastructure projects, should be about 4 percent to 5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, which would mean $500 billion to $600 billion.

In South Jersey, ready-to-go projects include work on the intersection of I-295, I-76 and Route 42; the intersection of I-295 and Route 38; bridge work on the I-295/676 corridor; and the Manahawkin Bay Bridge to Long Beach Island.

Jobs are a key consideration. In New Jersey, a study in July by Rutgers University's Edward J. Blounstein School of Planning and Public Policy calculated that $5.4 billion in state spending on new school construction would create 46,785 jobs over five years. It predicted the spending would generate more than $500 million in tax revenue.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is one of the critics of massive federal spending on public works. He said yesterday: "Every dollar the government taxes and spends is a dollar a family could invest in their children's education or an employer could have used to create more jobs."

Kris Kolluri, New Jersey's former transportation chief who is the new head of the state's school-construction agency, said infrastructure projects were the right remedy in a recession that is "protracted and deep."

He said Corzine was "intensely focused on getting state agencies to accelerate investment in infrastructure, without lowering standards or quality."

In Pennsylvania, projects would focus on maintenance - such as repaving and bridge repairs, PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler said. Such programs, like the $65 million Girard Point Bridge project, can be started more quickly than new-construction projects.

"In my perfect world, the projects would have good geographic distribution, with lots of emphasis on bridge repairs, pavement replacements, bottleneck improvements, safety improvements, and a few good capacity-improvement projects," said Biehler, who is also president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

SEPTA has identified projects it could start promptly, such as station improvements, rail replacement, painting and roofing projects, and the ordering of new vehicles.

The most expensive item on SEPTA's list is the $34 million overhaul of the Girard and Spring Garden stations, where the work is projected to create nearly 1,300 jobs in installation, manufacturing and related fields. SEPTA also proposes to spend $10.1 million to revamp the Malvern station on the Regional Rail's R5-Thorndale line, which it estimates would create 384 jobs.

New Jersey Transit's single most significant project would be a quick start to its long-planned $8 billion rail tunnel under the Hudson to Pennsylvania Station in New York City. A $600 million infusion would allow NJT to begin work on the project with its first contract for bridge and tunnel work, spokeswoman Penny Bassett Hackett said.

How an infrastructure stimulus project list would be drafted and how the money would be doled out are open questions.

Will Congress create its own massive version of "earmarks" and specify which projects are to be funded? Or will a federal formula dictate what types of construction are to get specified levels of funding and leave the details to the states? Or will existing funding agencies, such as the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, receive an infusion of new cash to parcel out to existing projects?

"Without knowing the dollar number or the process, there's a lot of spinning going on," said Barry Seymour, executive director of the DVRPC, which is the conduit for federal transportation funding for the nine-county Philadelphia region in Pennsylvania and South Jersey. "Everybody is just speculating at this point."

In anticipation that transportation stimulus money will be funneled through the existing network of metropolitan planning organizations, the DVRPC is working with the Pennsylvania and New Jersey departments of transportation to examine the existing list of projects on the four-year Transportation Improvement Program "to figure out which supplemental projects could be moved up," Seymour said.

"The goal is to have a regional list ready to go later in January," he said.