A year later, Minnesota has spent half of its $5 billion in stimulus cash

  • Article by: JIM FOTI and CHRIS HAVENS , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: February 17, 2010 - 8:11 PM

Union Depot gets $35 million in latest round of federal outlays.

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St. Paul Union Depot Head House

Photo: Photo provided by Ramsey County

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On the one-year anniversary of the federal stimulus law, Minnesota counted its blessings and racked up money for another big project Wednesday. The languishing Union Depot in St. Paul became the latest beneficiary of federal largesse, receiving $35 million.

The $787 billion program to get the nation back on its feet has injected at least $2.5 billion into Minnesota's economy.

The biggest chunks of cash have gone toward people in need, with $967 million for Medicaid and $844 million for unemployment checks, according to state data through Dec. 31. Another $2.5 billion is yet to be spent in the state.

Figuring out how to count the jobs created by the stimulus hasn't been easy, but Michelle Weber, statewide stimulus coordinator, said that more than 10,000 jobs in the fourth quarter of 2009 were paid for with federal recovery dollars. (That figure was determined by adding up the working hours funded by stimulus money during the quarter.)

State economist Tom Stinson said the stimulus program was designed for short-term and long-term gains.

"The hole that we were in was so deep that it's going to take years to get employment back to the level that we were at in 2007, even with this program," he said. "Without the program, it probably would've taken a couple more years." Instead of reaching the 2007 levels in 2012, he said, it might otherwise have taken until 2014 or 2015.

Minnesota's unemployment rate a year ago was 8.7 percent; in December, it was 7.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The most recent national figure was 10.6 percent in January.

Chugging to the Depot

While roads, bridges and transportation projects have been the most visible piece of stimulus in Minnesota, the dollars amount to only a small fraction of the total.

"I think the first thing that people need to realize is that the stimulus package was more than just the infrastructure piece," Stinson said. Minnesota highway projects that have been put out to bid total $463 million, with $223 million spent so far and millions more spent on mass transit.

Of the 35 Minnesota projects vying for $1.5 billion in special transportation funding known as TIGER grants, only Union Depot made the cut, leaving prominent highway projects such as the Hwy. 169/Interstate 494 interchange and a proposed new Stillwater bridge to find funding from other sources.

The Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority had applied for $135.8 million, but Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, the authority's chairman, said he was excited to get the $35 million, which will go right toward design and construction.

"You set your sights high," he said. "The reality is, it's extremely competitive."

That's true.

The TIGER grant program had $1.5 billion to give out, and the U.S. Department of Transportation received nearly 1,400 applications from all 50 states totaling about $57 billion in requests. More than half of those applications were for highway or bridge projects, and the rest focused on rail, transit, port and other projects. (TIGER stands for Transportation Improvements Generating Economic Recovery.)

Of the recipients, highway projects received 23 percent of funding, while rail projects won 19 percent, transit 26 percent, ports 7 percent, and multimodal, such as the Union Depot, received 25 percent.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., was at the Union Depot Wednesday morning with other east metro leaders to hail the grant award.

She said the money will help in the short term by providing jobs and in the long term by providing a transportation hub that will attract businesses to the area.

"It's also preserving history," she said. The depot was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Ramsey County officials have long viewed the historic depot as a regional transit hub for trains, buses, taxis and bicycles. It will be the terminus of the Central Corridor light-rail line, and Amtrak is expected to move there after the renovation is complete. Advocates for high-speed rail to Chicago want the trains to stop at the St. Paul station.

Work is already underway on the renovation of the 33-acre depot site. County officials estimate the project will bring up to 1,350 jobs during design and construction. Construction is expected to be completed in 2012. The renovation, including property acquisition, is estimated to be about $238 million.

In the past few years, the county bought the depot's concourse and 9 acres of adjacent land from the U.S. Postal Service and the three-story lobby, also known as the head house, from a private owner.

The neoclassical Union Depot was built between 1918 and 1923 on the site of an earlier train station that burned in 1915. The last passenger train passed through nearly 40 years ago.

"We are gonna be on the map when this station is put back into operation," said Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega.

Jim Foti • 612-673-4491 Chris Havens • 612-673-4148

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