Knoxville Ready and Waiting for Stimulus

Knoxville waits to see exactly how—and how much—stimulus funding will make it here

Last week President Obama signed the $787 billion stimulus package into law. His administration chose Denver's Museum of Nature and Science as a backdrop—following a photo-op tour of a solar panel design facility—in order to draw attention to the package's clean energy provisions. Knoxville is expected to benefit from certain of the package's clean energy programs. But the vagaries and unknowns stretching from Knoxville to Washington shed no light on how much to expect or when that funding might materialize locally. At the 2008 U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting, Knoxville submitted projects totaling more than $74.5 million. That list of projects is acknowledged as a "wish list," not a credible list of eligible projects. But projects submitted early on run the gamut from bringing city buildings into ADA compliance to re-routing Baker Creek along Mary James Park on South Haven.

If you feel less than enlightened on the progress of the now-approved stimulus funding toward Knoxville, you're in good company. Many of the people in leadership positions here, who we assume will be spending that money and creating jobs someday soon, are also wondering when, how, and how much is on the way.

"The big picture is that there are a couple projects funded by the stimulus package," says Madeleine Weil, Knoxville's deputy director of policy and communications and chair of the city's Energy and Sustainability Task Force. "And it looks like we will be eligible to receive funding through those."

The concept of clean energy itself still seems a bit novel, especially after eight years of a decidedly petroleum-centric administration. So Weil's task force is at a double disadvantage: Her clean energy for Knoxville initiative is a new entity itself, and it is poised to receive funding from a source so new that methods of disbursal have not yet been determined or developed.

"The energy programs are new and the rules and funding criteria are still being written right now up in Washington," Weil says. "The money will probably be administered as block grants, through state or federal channels. There are formulas that determine how those grants are awarded. The problem is, we don't know the formulas yet."

With few exceptions, that seems to be the experience of most Knoxville stimulus funding candidates. From road projects to energy conservation to utilities to the synchronization of traffic signals, there is ample cause to expect funds, along with a dearth of details.

Weil says that the specific programs she sees as contenders for stimulus funding include an upcoming energy audit, in which the contracted firm Ameresco will examine energy and water consumption at 100 city-owned buildings as well as parks and athletic fields. That audit will then shape an Energy Savings Performance contract, which will include proposals for energy saving measures.

"It's quite possible that all or some of that will be funded by stimulus funds," says Weil. "Otherwise, the projects will be funded by savings. Measures will range from those that give short-term paybacks, such as lighting upgrades, to long-term paybacks, such as HVAC upgrades."

Another trait shared by stimulus funding hopefuls is that their projects are already planned and budgeted, sending the signal to whoever makes the decisions that they are considered necessary and feasible by those effected.

"This project's going to happen regardless of whether or not it receives stimulus funding," says Rick Emmett, the City of Knoxville's urban growth manager, of the Gay Street Streetscapes project. "It's in the city's budget. With times as tight as they are, a project has to be very needed to be in the budget. The advantage of receiving stimulus funding for this project is that it would free up money to be spent elsewhere."

The Streetscapes project has a budget of $3.5 million. Asked how it will be determined whether or not the federal government will pay some portion of that in the interest of job creation and increased cash flow, Emmett says, "We don't know yet. I don't know that anyone does."

Emmett's belief that Streetscapes should receive stimulus funding stems in part from what may be the most-mentioned criteria for state and local construction projects: "I know it's shovel-ready," he says. "We stuck the shovel in last week. It clearly qualifies for this funding as I understand it."

From the downtown detour you have probably encountered to the streetcar tracks tangled in the antique pavement, Emmett says that he can already tell that this project is going to be a challenge.

"This is the first time this street has been worked on since 1919," he says. "That's when the surface was elevated. The infrastructure is so old, things like utilities are not where you expect them to be.

"It's going to be a challenge. We're working hard to help the effected businesses stay viable."

The drastically varied "streetscapes" of the 100 and 200 blocks of North Gay Street over the past century have had a lot to do with the evolution of public transportation. The reason the street surface was elevated was to put cars, horses, pedestrians and streetcars on a separate level from trains. Knoxville Area Transit (KAT) descends, of course, from the streetcar and trolley system that once spread throughout Knoxville and environs.

KAT appears to be unique among Knoxville stimulus beneficiaries, in that the group knows how much it's going to receive and who will deliver it to them.

"The Federal Transit Administration funding is established," says Cindy McGinnis, KAT General Manager. "It's there. The federal register will make that formal probably in 10 days or two weeks. But we pretty much know that we're going to get about $5.8 million. This isn't funding that can really be used for anything else."

As the stimulus package gained traction in Congress, it has been perceived by some at the local level less as legislation than the lowering of a giant piñata. Some offices give the appearance of scrambling for position. KAT has been in position for some time.

"We've been talking about this for months now," says McGinnis. "FTA has published some preliminary numbers. We're receiving our stimulus funding through our normal channels that we receive our 5307 funds from. 5307 funds are a code of FTA that provides assistance to urban areas between 200,000 and 999,000 in population. It will be very easy for us to access that funding because it's through channels that we're familiar with."

McGinnis says there will be some local decision-making to determine spending specifics, but she and her colleagues know which KAT programs will move forward with this funding. KAT has 20 buses eligible for replacement. (Though the price tag of $375,000 per new vehicle will prevent all 20 buses from being retired.) Its Magnolia Avenue facility pre-dates the era of computer administration and has also suffered a process of settling and stabilization. The building is in need of a lot of what McGinnis calls "deferred maintenance." Stimulus funds would also allow KAT to be responsive to any unforeseen problems as the Downtown Transit Center comes together.

"Potentially we could use some of the funding to complete future phases of the Downtown Transit Center Project," says McGinnis. "I want to be real careful about that because I don't want anybody to think that that project is not funded or over budget or anything. It might be that as we get into construction over the next few months there would be an issue and we could react and solve the issue quickly with some of this money if we had to."