Little children aren't the only ones with visions of sugar plums this holiday season. State and local governments across the land are preparing wish lists for the president-elect as though he were jolly Saint Nick himself.
Democrat Barack Obama has pledged the largest investment in the nation's infrastructure since the federal interstate system of the 1950s in an effort to create jobs and spark the economy. Salivating political leaders, including those in Florida and the Tampa Bay region, are jockeying for part of the package, estimated at $500-billion to $1-trillion.
U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, said the looming frenzy for cash has the makings of "a real bacon fest."
If Florida can make its case, the region could see a complete rebuilding of Interstate 275 through Tampa and replacement of the drawbridges linking the mainland with St. Pete Beach and Tierra Verde. A pair of new taxiways at Tampa International Airport are possible, as are flyovers that will lift U.S. 19 above intersections at Belleair Road and Seville Boulevard in Pinellas County.
It is not clear how much money will be doled out, or how.
The incoming administration wants Congress to have a bill ready for Obama to sign soon after his Jan. 20 swearing in.
"Everybody wants to be ready," said Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, who has long focused on securing federal and state money for local transportation needs. "I would rather be ready than coming behind the eight ball on this one."
• • •
While the means for opening the spigot remain unsettled, a few things seem likely in determining who gets what, said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. First on the list: creating jobs. "It's jobs, jobs, jobs," Castor said.
Secondly, she said, will be an emphasis on projects that are energy-efficient, making the Tampa Bay area's slow awakening to building commuter rail lamentable, she said. And work must be ready to start in short order.
The money can't come quickly enough for Florida, which is falling deeper into a bleak recession fed by a dependence on construction to drive its economy.
Gov. Charlie Crist has requested $7-billion for 92 transportation projects that can begin within 120 days once funding is available. Fifteen are in the Tampa Bay region and were developed with advice from local governments. The price tag: nearly $1-billion.
State officials claim the federal dollars would create about 195,000 new jobs in Florida, about a third of them hands-on construction, the rest in peripheral employment arising as a result of the new projects.
The nation's governors, including Crist, have asked that $136-billion be set aside for infrastructure projects.
But local officials are not letting governors do all the asking. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, among other local government associations, is asking all of its members to submit lists of ready-to-go work.
The city of Tampa put forth millions of dollars worth of suggestions, from $3.6-million for a new "green" community center at Springhill Park to $25.6-million in reclaimed water pipes.
Few governments are passing up the chance to ask for help.
Pasco County is asking for more than $70-million to extend Moon Lake Road to the Suncoast Parkway while the Tampa Housing Authority would like about a third as much for a "green" redevelopment of the Central Park Village public housing complex near downtown.
"We're looking at anything that's shovel ready," Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher said.
Though local governments are hoping for a voice, it's likely for the sake of speed that much of the stimulus money will go directly to the states. State leaders would decide what gets built and where, said Keith Ashdown, chief investigator at Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington.
However, legislation likely will be devised so that members of Congress can take credit for what's built in their districts, he said.
"That's the general direction," Ashdown said. "And if I were a betting man, I would put money on it."
Lobbyists for counties and municipalities will try to get a percentage of Florida's total take. But it's expected that the state Department of Transportation will dole out the bulk of the money.
Kevin Thibault, the DOT's assistant secretary for engineering and operations, said there won't be any giveaways. Companies, he said, will have to competitively bid for projects. Projects that have been delayed the longest because of collapsing revenue will get priority, he said.
Doug Callaway, a former federal affairs director for the DOT, said the public should have a high degree of confidence in the agency's ability to do the job well.
"The process the DOT has here in Florida is very transparent, very efficient and very legitimate," Callaway said.
That doesn't mean politics won't play a crucial role. Seel, the Pinellas commissioner, said final consideration will undoubtedly involve the state's most powerful lawmakers, the governor, and DOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos.
"What's going to be key for us is making sure that our state senators and representatives have some influence and can put in their 2 cents," Seel said.
Those opposed to government spending as a way to revive the economy have many arguments against stimulus programs like Obama's. Funds are doled out based on politics not need, critics argue, and it takes too long for public spending to give the economy its needed jolt.
University of Florida economist David Denslow, however, said even some skeptics think Obama's initiative is justified. That's because current tweaks to monetary and fiscal policy in the form of credit incentives and tax relief have done nothing to stem the recession.
"It's about the only thing left," Denslow said. "So the consensus has emerged that the increase in spending is what you have to do."
Times staff writers David DeCamp and Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4166. Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.