Savannah City Council members have begun the process of making a list and checking it twice to decide which projects to propose for potential federal stimulus money.
In all, $422 million in local projects and programs were listed by city staff.
Mayor Otis Johnson is urging the council to set priorities, because there’s no way everything will be funded. He also said projects proposed should be “shovel-ready” so that they would be more likely to qualify for funding.
Thirteen federal departments will determine who gets what and how much. Assistant City Manager Chris Morrill told the council the city is already ahead of most other municipalities because it has approved a five-year capital improvement plan.
“Some will run by formula, some will be competitive grants that we’ll apply for, some will come through the state, so have to work with the state on them,” Morrill said. “Our goal is to make (our projects) fit the criteria and get them in. It’s a shotgun approach. Those successful will be flexible and prepared to change their projects to fit the criteria.”
The council quickly agreed on the top transportation priority project - the widening and elevation of President Street Extension, a project that will cost about $50 million.
While some residents might prefer to see Phase 5 of the Truman Parkway at the top of the list, it could be funded by the stimulus, anyway. The state has chosen that project as its top priority in Savannah, while the county has chosen the Skidaway Narrows bridge project.
Water Resources Director Bob Scanlon said the President Street project would be a major improvement. The proposed project includes a high bridge over the Bilbo Canal and railroad crossing, which will eliminate traffic backup on President Street.
“Up to five times a day, they’re making switches there and blocking President Street,” Scanlon said. “That port terminal is growing, so it’s only going to get worse.”
The mayor noted that the project is not a Savannah River Landing project, but is needed for safety reasons for the entire city. “If we have a 4 or 5 hurricane, those people on the islands will not get off,” he said. “We need to educate folks that this is not a Savannah River Landings project. They happen to be there, but we should be doing this, anyway.”
Scanlon said the road already floods at high tide. A serious disaster could put the roadway entirely under water.
“This is a public safety issue,” the mayor said. “I was caught in that traffic this morning. If an ambulance wanted to get off that island, it would have been stuck. Water is always coming on President Street. In a heavy downpour, that place down there is almost impassable.”
“(The project) also eliminates the railroad crossing,” Scanlon said. “That would be a real boon to all residents. Anybody getting on the Truman parkway knows about sitting there.”
The project would create about 350 jobs.
Assistant City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney said the city also will be getting federal funding to help deal with home foreclosures. The funding is part of federal aid to banks and can only be used in low-income areas that have been designated as Community Development Block Grant areas.
The money will not help individual homeowners at this point, although help may be coming in the future. Small-Toney said the city’s Public Development Bureau will use the money to buy vacant houses, repair them and then sell them at market value.
In some cases, blighted properties will be demolished. As many as 450 houses in Savannah have been foreclosed on, according to Small-Toney.
Some people see the program as a solution to their own problems. Small-Toney said some people are calling and offering their property to the city.
“We want to help those people hardest hit by it,” Alderman Tony Thomas said. “My concern is this is just the tip of the iceberg of what’s coming. I get phone calls. People are asking, ‘Is there any kind of loan program to help me?’
“I believe the situation is worse than it seems,” he said. “People are on the verge now.”
The council will meet again soon to discuss other possible stimulus projects in an effort to get as much for the city as possible. “This is money from the sky,” Thomas said. “We need to get our bang from the buck. We’re never going to get an opportunity like this again.” cs