Local school districts could receive more than $20 million in federal aid over the next two years if the $852 billion economic stimulus bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives is enacted.
The legislation could also bring an estimated $700 million to Maine over two years and includes $137 million for highway and bridge reconstruction and $9.5 million for transit-based projects.
According to a list compiled by the Maine Department of Transportation, many of the “shovel-ready” infrastructure items that could qualify for stimulus funding are in the greater Portland area, including $35 million for rail improvements between Portland and Brunswick; $38.7 million for runway and terminal expansion at Portland International Jetport; $35 million for reconstruction of Interstate 295 northbound between Brunswick and Gardiner; $17.5 million to replace a railroad crossing bridge in Falmouth; $4 million for road improvements to Route 26 and Route 100 in Falmouth; $9.5 million for Portland’s Maine State Pier, and $4 million for improvements to Portland’s International Marine Terminal.
The range of potential qualifying projects has mobilized the lobbying efforts of various stakeholders, including individual communities, general contracting organizations, business organizations and advocacy groups like Maine Preservation and GrowSmart Maine.
But so far, Gov. John Baldacci, who will ultimately determine the allocations, has not announced a list of priorities.
David Farmer, Baldacci’s deputy chief of staff, said Monday the governor is aligning project preferences with the ever-changing criteria for funding.
The stimulus bill was scheduled for review by the U.S. Senate this week. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has announced a desire for bipartisan support after no House Republicans voted for the plan. That means the legislation could see significant changes before a Senate vote. 
In the meantime, Farmer said, Baldacci is attempting to manage local expectations.
“Times are tough,” Farmer said. “Even though it looks like a lot of money, there’s a lot of need.”
While infrastructure projects have yet to be determined, school funding for state districts has already been outlined. According to numbers compiled by the Congressional Research Service, greater Portland school districts would receive more than $20 million in special education, low-income assistance and school construction funding.
The bill’s school funding may take many school district officials by surprise.
Willy Ritch, communications director for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said many of the districts he contacted were unaware school funding would be included in the stimulus bill, or that a congressional study had been conducted to appoint specific allocations.
Some analysts believe the funding was pushed through the House version of the stimulus bill to reduce state governors’ criticism about school spending. In contrast,  governors will be largely responsible for choosing how transportation and infrastructure funds provided by the bill are spent.
The education funding would be administered by the U.S. Department of Education, which would get $66 billion additional funding if the House stimulus is enacted.
Locally, Portland schools would scoop up the majority of the regional allocation, with $8.9 million divided between construction ($3.4 million) this year and Title I-A and Individual with Disabilities funding ($5.5 million) over the next two years.
Other potential large allocations included Bath ($1.2 million, $480,000 for construction), Brunswick ($1.8 million, $500,000 for construction), Scarborough ($1.2 million), South Portland ($1.9 million, $528,000 for construction) and School Administrative District 75 ($1.8 million).
Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Freeport, Yarmouth and SAD 51 were all slated to receive individual funding between $500,000 and more than $600,000.
Under the rules created by the House Committee on Education and Labor, districts receiving construction funding could use the money for school renovations, modernization and repair.
Pingree, who along with U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, were among the 244 representatives who voted for the stimulus bill, said the education spending would not only bolster local schools, but potentially prevent districts from having to lay off teachers.
“The weak economy is putting the squeeze on Maine schools, so I’m glad we were able to include some money in the economic recovery plan,” Pingree said. “The school modernization plan will allow districts to make needed repairs and stimulate the local economy. The additional money for Title I and special education will help ease some of the financial pressure our schools are under. Investing in our schools is investing in our long term economic health.”
Meanwhile, individual proponents of the transportation and infrastructure
projects continue to lobby the governor’s office. Asked how much input those interest groups would have once the final allocation spending criteria are set, Farmer said Baldacci is committed to involving stakeholders and maintaining transparency. However, he said, the point of the legislation is to provide an immediate boost to the limping
“We hope to have an inclusive process,” Farmer said. “But I would caution that this money has to be allocated quickly. We have projects that are approved and ready to go. We’re not going to drag our feet.”
A complete list of transportation projects that may qualify for federal stimulus funding can be found on the MDOT Web site, maine.gov/mdot.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]

Inside: Portland has a $96 million economic stimulus wish list. Page 4.

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