Monday, December 22, 2008
Federal Rules may derail City's Dreams
By Copyright © 2008 By Dan McKay
Journal Staff Writer
The projects are ambitious.
A solar power plant for half a billion dollars. About $140 million for a wind farm. Another $90 million for a streetcar down Central Avenue.
These are among the big-ticket items on Mayor Martin Chávez's wish list for the economic-stimulus package from Washington, D.C.
But critics are starting to wonder whether the massive projects are remotely realistic — even if Congress doles out the money.
For one thing, under federal law, accepting federal money usually means getting environmental clearances, which can take up to two years.
But President-elect Barack Obama wants projects that are "shovel ready," perhaps with construction starting within six months.
The Obama transition team is reviewing the environmental-impact-study process and how to improve it, the Journal has learned. A transition spokeswoman wouldn't comment on the issue.
Ed Adams, Albuquerque's chief administrative officer, put it this way: "If they expect to have the cities and the counties move these projects forward, they've got to streamline the environmental process. They can't run these projects the way they've done in the past."
Councilor Michael Cadigan, an attorney, said it's unlikely the federal government will waive environmental regulations. An environmental-impact statement is typically required for any federally funded project that has a substantial impact on the environment, whether it be positive or negative, he said.
That can take years.
"We have to have a realistic process ... and not waste our time with 'pie in the sky' projects," Cadigan said of the requests.
Almost every substantial project funded by the federal government requires an environmental review, officials say. Some projects, however, can get away with only an environmental assessment, which is less stringent than an environmental-impact statement. An EIS, meanwhile, can cost $500,000 on the low end.
Adams said it's not clear whether the projects on the city list will have to go through a full-blown EIS, though others said some of the big-ticket items would.
Sometimes, an EIS isn't required if a project is largely handled by a local agency and only a small portion of the money comes from the federal government, said Don Hancock of the nonprofit Southwest Research and Information Center.
"There's not a bright red line" for what's required, he said.
Councilors weigh in
Regardless, some officials suggest targeting simpler projects.
"I think everybody kind of got economic stimulus confused with Santa Claus," Albuquerque City Councilor Sally Mayer said in an interview.
City Council President Isaac Benton, an architect, said the mayor's proposal "seemed more like a wish list and not a serious request."
Councilor Trudy Jones said she likes some ideas on the list, such as adding solar panels to rooftops, but isn't "absolutely confident the rest of the package is what we need."
Councilor Ken Sanchez said he liked the approach of generating a broad list like the mayor's.
"We don't really know the conditions and requirements that are going to be placed on the cities and states," he said.
Cadigan, who intends to propose that the council hold a meeting or two to develop a project list, said focusing on street or other projects that are already cleared federally should be a priority. He suggests the Paseo del Norte and Interstate 25 interchange reconstruction — a $340 million project — as a possibility because some early work has been done.
An Albuquerque list totalling $1.6 billion was developed by the mayoral administration to fit categories suggested by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The mayor asked city councilors to submit their own projects for the list this week. They added a big-ticket item of their own: $400 million for a Downtown event center and hotel complex.
Projects ready now
Adams said the projects sought by the mayor are more realistic than critics say. The list is broad because the federal government hasn't fleshed out what its requirements will be, he said. Consequently, the city is making as many projects eligible as possible, he said.
One category of particular interest to the Obama team is renewable energy, Adams said, triggering the proposals for a power plant, solar panels and a wind farm.
"To say this doesn't make sense is beyond silly," Adams said. "This is very critical to the overall economy."
Many of the mayoral requests are for basic infrastructure, such as roofs, sidewalks, roads and similar upgrades. In some cases, the city could launch projects immediately. In others, it would have to issue a request for proposals and start within "months," Adams said.
"If someone wrote us a check for median landscaping, we could start tomorrow," he said. "We could do as much as our contractors could possibly produce within two years."
And the big projects aren't as far away as people think, he said.
Private companies, for example, have already done much of the "leg work" on the proposed $532 million solar plant at Double Eagle, which appears on the mayor's list. That's because the Public Service Company of New Mexico had previously issued a request for proposals on renewable energy projects, Adams said.
The city owns the land and could enter into a joint public-private partnership to get the solar plant going, he said.
The city has also done preliminary design work for a $90 million streetcar down Central Avenue.
Adams is an engineer who made his name at City Hall by overseeing large construction projects, such as Isotopes Park. The stimulus package could test his skills.
Federal officials are expected to want to get projects going within six months and finished within two years.
Getting the materials and skilled labor needed for the work could be another challenge, depending on how many projects are funded.
But contractors are eager for work.
"There's a lot of capacity in New Mexico and not as much going on," said Jim King, president of Bradbury Stamm Construction Co. "The people are available. The materials are readily available."