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Highway 965 still waiting for the green

NORTH LIBERTY– The trail on a sought-after $1.3 million has officially gone cold for this year, but North Liberty is still hoping for federal assistance in quelling its hot button traffic issue– congestion on Highway 965.
The city applied for an Iowa Clean Air Attainment Program (ICAAP) grant this fall to help defray costs for a seven-year, $29.6 million widening and redesign project on the north-south corridor road, but was notified earlier this month that no money was awarded the project this time around.
The North Liberty City Council reviewed the project costs during a budget work session last Tuesday, Jan. 20, part of a discussion around the city’s five-year Capital Improvements Plan.
Phase I of Highway 965, now estimated at $4.2 million, includes functional improvements from Ashley Court to Lions Drive and added turn lanes and traffic signals at Cherry Street and Hawkeye Drive, as well as the realignment of Fairview Lane and Golf View Court. Those improvements have proceeded to the design stage..
Still uncertain is where the money will come from, as federal funding remains a big part of the hoped-for bankroll, and issuing city bonds is a probability.
In the city’s 2010 Capital Improvements Plan is an estimated $877,500 “budgeted to borrow” through general obligation bonds in fiscal year 2009-10, said City Administrator Ryan Heiar. Also listed is $750,000 in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) bonds to help pay for the first phase of the project.
While TIF revenues help to keep the project tax-neutral, issuing general obligation bonds could cause an increase in the city’s tax levy, depending on a wide array of factors such as assessed property values, the state-issued tax rollback formula and the number of new properties developed in the coming year.
Finally, the city administration is still looking to the nation’s capital for another $2 to $3 million to fund the first phase of the highway improvement project.
Council members and Heiar will travel to Washington D.C. in February as part of a Corridor coalition that makes the annual trip to appeal to legislators for appropriations. Heiar said North Liberty officials will lobby for $3.3 million for the highway plan.
Also, said Heiar, is the notion of a new federal stimulus package expected to be introduced by newly-elected President Barack Obama, currently just a concept.
There are several sources of information on the anticipated stimulus package, he said, and many of them conflict in their details.
“Johnson County Council of Governments was told we will get 90 days to get these projects under contract,” he explained. “Another source is the governor’s office, saying we have two years. I think it’s safe to say that at this point, nobody knows what is going to happen.”
Other road projects in the 2010 Capital Improvements Plan include a $1.2 million reconstruction of Forevergreen Road and $50,000 for designing turn lanes on Penn Street west of Highway 965.
Heiar said his goal in preparing the new fiscal budget was to remain at the same city tax rate.
“We have other projects this year, including Forevergreen Road and a new city hall, all of which would require us to borrow money. We went into this budget planning year with the council’s goal of no– or very limited– tax increase,” said Heiar.
In all, the proposed Capital Improvements Plan has a total of $9.3 million worth of projects on the list for 2009-10, with about $2.4 million expected to come through issuing general obligation bonds.
“We are meeting with our financial consultant to figure out what these numbers could potentially do to our tax rate, based on assumptions. And we are showing the council options, so they are fully aware of what the potential effect is on property taxes,” Heiar said.
He added as the Highway 965 project continues through the design phase, the city will learn some answers about whether outside funding is available.
“If not, we could look at scaling back the project,” he said.