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|Parish could lose funding for Finks Hideaway project|
Local officials will ask Department of Transportation and Development officials whether Ouachita Parish will lose almost $2 million in federal funding for the Finks Hideaway Road project.
In the meantime, parish officials will work to determine whether the $2 million could be used for another road project in Ouachita Parish if the Finks Hideaway project is deemed not eligible for federal funding this year.
Ouachita Council of Governments discussed the possibility of losing the federal funding for the Finks Hideaway project Monday at its regular meeting.
Each year OCOG is allocated roughly $3.5 million from the Federal Highway Administration for road projects, which are prioritized and included in the federal Urban Highway System Program.
The deadline for OCOG to use this $3.5 million in Urban System money is Sept. 30, or the end of the federal government's fiscal year. OCOG will only be able to spend some $1.6 million of this money for right-of-way acquisitions before the September deadline.
Ouachita Parish Police Jury engineer Don Harrison said the Finks Hideaway Road project has been held up by DOTD for more than three months during the right-of-way acquisition process.
"Apparently as a result of that, they've shifted the right-of-way acquisition, so instead of requiring it to be completed by the end of this month, they've moved it till December," Harrison said. "That shifts the construction to March 2010. So, this fiscal year we will be using right-of-way acquisition funds but not construction funds."
Ouachita Parish Police Juror Walt Caldwell, a member of OCOG, said, "We can either use it or lose it."
DOTD recently issued statements to some parish leaders, which led them to believe DOTD understood Finks Hideaway Road was a multi-year project.
"And perhaps we will see some of those allocations from prior years come back into the funding stream, but that (statements from DOTD) lacks any sort of authority at this point to make this body comfortable," Caldwell said.
The Finks Hideaway Road project, which will widen a portion of the road from two to five lanes, consists of two construction phases.
The first phase of work calls for the widening of the road to five lanes from U.S. 165 to Holland Drive.
The second phase would widen Finks Hideaway Road to three lanes from Holland Drive to Raymond Drive.
The cost for phase one is estimated at $8 million. The Ouachita Parish Police Jury would pay $1.6 million toward project costs.
There is no timetable for the phase two portion of the project, Harrison said.
According to Harrison, it is doubtful OCOG could use all of its allocated Urban Systems money this fiscal year "because of the delays they have put us through.
"That's why we need to have some other projects ready to slide in."
He said in order to meet a Sept. 30 deadline, DOTD would need at least 90 days to review plans, approve those plans, advertise for bids and "let the project."
West Monroe Mayor Dave Norris, a member of OCOG, too, asked, "If we had something down there yesterday, what's the chance of tying that money up this fiscal year?"
Harrison believes if local governments could submit an alternative project to DOTD soon, OCOG could meet the September deadline.
Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, who serves as OCOG's president, added,"We certainly don't want to lose those funds, so we need to do whatever is necessary to secure that."
Doug Mitchell of North Delta Regional Planning and Development, which provides administrative assistance to OCOG, does not believe OCOG will lose this Urban System money this fiscal year.
"It's not the matter of us losing the money, it's the matter of when the money and the project is authorized to proceed," Mitchell said.
Mitchell's remarks did not comfort some members of OCOG, who asked him to obtain some form of written commitment from DOTD regarding the matter.
Talk of using federal stimulus money also surfaced during OCOG's meeting Monday.
OCOG is in line to receive roughly $9 million in federal highway funding approved through an economic stimulus package Congress approved earlier this year.
In early March, OCOG agreed to split the funding among the three governmental bodies that comprise OCOG - the cities of Monroe and West Monroe and Ouachita Parish Police Jury.
Each governmental entity provided a priority list of road projects for this stimulus money. According to federal government guidelines, road projects identified by local governments must be included in the Urban Highway System's Program.
The three governmental bodies also provided a list of backup projects that could be tackled if additional money was allocated to OCOG.
If OCOG loses the $2 million this fiscal year, Norris suggested using some of these road projects on the backup list to ensure that money stays in Ouachita Parish.
Also, a recent meeting with Federal Highway Administration and DOTD officials suggested there would be governmental entities state-wide that will not meet the government's deadline to receive stimulus funding, Harrison said.
Those governmental agencies must return their federal stimulus funding to DOTD, which would find other governmental bodies with projects that are shovel-ready.
"The impression I got was it would be a good idea for us to advance our back-up projects so we can be ready to take advantage of surplus stimulus money, or they could be used for a regular Urban Systems project," Harrison said.
He said these backup projects could be ready to go within a few weeks.
Caldwell suggested North Delta Regional Planning and Development officials determine if submitting an alternative project for this fiscal year's allocation would impact funding for Finks Hideaway Road at a later date.
"Obviously we want to preserve the Finks Hideaway project," Caldwell said. "We don't want to do anything that would adversely affect it, but if it appears, as it does for this year, that significant funds may not be advanced for that project, can we apply those funds to another project? And can it be done without penalty to the Finks Hideaway project?"
If OCOG submits an alternative project for the 2008-09 fiscal year funding, a special meeting would be called before next month's regular OCOG meeting.
OCOG meets on the fourth Monday of every month.