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Stimulus work needs fast action

Editorial

State and local agencies in Oregon are scrambling to capture their share of the $787 billion federal economic stimulus package. The success of such efforts should not be judged solely on how much money is acquired and spent locally. In the final analysis, the number of jobs created, as well as the long term benefits and the immediacy of projects funded, will be essential descriptors of success.

We can think of nothing more important than getting Oregonians back to work now and contributing to sustained improvements in local communities and the economy. It's time to invest in success that can be seen and celebrated now.

While significant federal funding has already been allocated, billions of dollars remain to be released through competitive bidding in areas such as housing, workforce development, alternative energy, public safety, broadband communications, alternative forms of transportation and green technology.

Millions ready to be spent

The Portland region is already a large beneficiary of the federal stimulus program. The city of Portland was granted $28 million in entitlement or 'formula' dollars allocated to governments throughout the United States. Metro received $38 million in regional transportation dollars and TriMet earned $44.8 million for projects and another $7 million from the federal stimulus funds shared by the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, local cities and counties and the state of Oregon are funding recipients, as well.

Yet, not all governments are as mobile as others.

TriMet, for one, is under way quickly. The transit agency is using existing contractors and a system of change orders to begin work on improving some existing MAX track line stability and to install heating devices to keep light-rail switching devices from freezing during ice and snow storms. The agency also will spend $13 million to replace a dilapidated bus garage in the Beaverton area that for years has been seen as a liability. Given the choice to buy new buses built in Minnesota, the agency decided to spend its federal dollars putting Oregonians back to work.

Other agencies should look to TriMet's process as a way to expedite their stimulus investments. The city of Portland has taken some significant steps forward by cutting its typical eight-month contract process to three months for stimulus projects. Yet, we think that given the continued growth of Oregon's unemployment rate - which last month topped 10.8 percent - Portland can do even better in getting federal stimulus projects started sooner, while also making sure contracts are awarded to qualified companies with competitive bids.

Dual strategy needed

Admittedly, some delay is explained by the immense scope of President Barack Obama's stimulus plan and by the fact that the new administration is still hiring staff to fill federal agency posts and then determine the rules for stimulus dollars to be allocated and used.

But we suspect much of the need for new rules and new hiring relates to the dollars targeted for areas such as alternative energy, green technology or health care information systems.

Portland and other agencies should employ two stimulus strategies - immediate and longer term.

In doing so, the Portland area can lead the nation in using federal stimulus dollars to get local residents back to work now and by investing in projects that will make a sustained difference. While we like Obama's initial 120-day deadline, we feel that his long-term deadline lasting through 2010 for the balance of funds to be committed will continue to leave too many Americans unemployed.

The Portland area can show a more immediate way to stimulate employment and the economy and improve the community.