In search of ‘Obama bucks’ in Aspen, the valley
August 31, 2009
ASPEN – Aspen-area agencies are using or applying for millions of dollars in federal Recovery Act funds for future projects aimed at stimulating the Roaring Fork Valley economy.
From the city of Aspen to Pitkin County and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA), bureaucrats are spending their days writing grant applications and pitching several initiatives to the federal government with the hope that they’ll receive what’s been commonly referred to as “Obama bucks.”
“It’s a good time to strike while the iron is hot,” said Lauren McDonnell, the city’s Canary Initiative project coordinator, who is in charge of grants for Aspen’s efficiency and renewable energy programs.
Convincing Washington to get past Aspen’s reputation as a wealthy community that doesn’t need stimulus dollars is a concern for some local officials, but they’ve been assured by various agencies that all grant applications are reviewed objectively.
To combat that stigma, local agencies are focusing their applications to highlight cutting-edge renewable energy programs and sustainability in the community.
The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport has been given $3.6 million to rehabilitate the aircraft parking surface, which has structurally failed, said Jim Elwood, director of aviation.
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The cost of the project was budgeted in the airport’s capital reserve fund, and Pitkin County would have contributed toward it in a matching grant.
The stimulus money came from the aviation trust fund, administered by the federal government’s general appropriations fund, Elwood said. The project met the Federal Aviation Administration’s requirements for disbursement, and it helped that it was shovel ready, he added.
The work will be done this fall.
“It’s helping us out, we feel, tremendously and the Roaring Fork Valley as well due to the fact that we are employing a bunch of people,” said Mark Gould Jr. of Gould Construction, the contractor for the project.
The airport project will put laborers back to work, thereby fueling the local economy because they will spend their earnings by purchasing goods locally.
“I think this project hit the purpose of the federal stimulus money, which is to get jobs done and put people back to work,” Elwood said.
Mark Gould Sr., president of the company, said the airport project and another federal stimulus project in Glenwood has allowed his firm to keep people employed.
RFTA has applied for two federal stimulus grants that could potentially put a lot of people to work, as well as create energy efficiencies in facilities and a sustainable mass transit system.
The first, called TIGGER (Transit Investments for Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction), could bring RFTA more than $10 million to buy 10 hybrid buses that would replace aging diesel vehicles, as well as retrofit the Aspen bus maintenance facility with geothermal solar technologies, and energy lighting efficiencies.
RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said he was waiting for an answer from Washington this summer on whether the grant will be awarded. But because the federal government has been inundated with grant applications, it’s taking longer.
Along with the application for a TIGGER grant, there is about $1.5 billion available as part of the Recovery Act.
Although it’s still in draft form, the TIGGER application asks for about $50 million, Blankenship said, adding it’s due Sept. 15.
It would pay for a sizable portion of RFTA’s planned Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, as well as overhauls to both bus maintenance facilities in Aspen and Glenwood. The Glenwood facility could be expanded as a result of the BRT, Blankenship noted.
“We see this as an opportunity to help make this system more sustainable if we can tap into this level of federal funding,” Blankenship said, adding help from the feds will allow RFTA to put more of its money into operations and capital needs.
RFTA has enough money available to provide a local match of 20 percent of the BRT’s $68 million price-tag, which will be a regional system that aims to make riding the bus faster, more efficient and comfortable.
Like most transit agencies in the country, RFTA has had to cut services and raise fares.
“We’ve been heavily impacted by the economy,” Blankenship said, adding RFTA’s grant applications have met all of the federal government’s criteria of reducing congestion, greenhouse gases, as well as improving air quality and providing a sustainable bus system for several communities.
“We believe that we have a competitive application,” he said.
If either grant is awarded to RFTA, it will surely infuse plenty of money and jobs into the local economy, Blankenship said.
“It’s very likely that many local contractors would benefit from these grant funds,” Blankenship said. “It would have a substantial impact on the construction industry and those funds have a tendency to circulate … that money changes hands two or three times before it leaves the valley.”
The Aspen Police Department has been awarded a $15,000 federal “Local Solicitation Grant” to buy three or four new laptop computers for officers, according to Police Chief Richard Pryor.
For years, APD officers and Pitkin County Sheriff’s deputies have had to share six desktop computers. Now, every officer will have his or her own computer.
Pryor said the APD has applied for a $250,000 grant that would pay for the computerized platform that would allow officers to use the laptops in their cars and will see real-time information from 911 dispatchers.
The technology upgrade will allow the APD to operate more effectively and efficiently, Pryor said. The grants help offset costs so that the money that would have been used can remain in the city’s coffers to pay for other expenses, he added.
City looking for big environmental bucks
McDonnell, who works for the city, said she is working on a $5 million grant application that will be submitted to the Department of Energy next week that would help fund environmental and clean energy projects in Aspen.
A large chunk of that – $3.5 million – would go toward a city-created geothermal heat district that could potentially provide renewable heating and cooling to businesses within a four-square mile radius of downtown Aspen.
Other items that would be funded by the grant include work on hydropower, geoexchange and solar photovoltaic projects.
McDonnell said part of the criteria in applying for federal stimulus grants is whether the projects create jobs.
Another grant that the city has applied for, one that is not part of the federal stimulus package, is for $500,000. It would go toward the geothermal heat district, McDonnell said.
Officials are considering applying for Smart Grid grants that would advance technology in the city’s utilities department but no decisions have been made yet.
“We are constantly looking for what we can apply for,” McDonnell said.
The city was recently turned down for a Clean Cities Petroleum Reduction Grant administered by the National Energy Technology Lab. The money would have gone toward plug-in stations for hybrid vehicles behind City Hall.
Mitzi Ledingham, deputy director of Pitkin County’s health and human services, said her department has received word that the state will reimburse it $20,000 for a cooperative program with Colorado Mountain College and Colorado Workforce that is designed to get people back to work.
Those two agencies are leading the effort, with Pitkin County’s assistance. The scope of work includes case management, training and job readiness classes, among other skills and resources that will be provided to individuals in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Ledingham noted that in Pitkin County during the second quarter of 2008, there were 16,474 jobs. This past March there were 12,066 jobs – a difference of 4,408 positions that no longer exist.
“That is quite telling about the slowdown,” she said.
Dillon Hoffman, Pitkin County’s energy program manager, said potential grants from the Recovery Act are “coming down a million different ways,” and he and his colleagues are investigating the best ways to obtain federal money.
Much of that is dependent on what is issued to local governments from Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s energy office, he added.
“We’re waiting for those programs to roll,” Hoffman said. “We’re trying to figure out some creative ways and get in with the governor’s energy office.”
Hoffman said it might be a challenge to obtain federal grants since Aspen and Pitkin County already have started many cutting-edge initiatives and other local governments may win out as a result.
But Pitkin County will still apply. Potential projects could include upgrades to the county’s facilities – construction and improvements that would likely be done by local contractors, Hoffman said.