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Big Benefactors: How Are Stimulus Dollars Being Used in Central Ohio

Federal Stimulus Dollars continues to flow to Central Ohio. But where is that money going? Are they creating jobs, building worthwhile projects? Monday we begin a series called Following the Stimulus Money. State Government has received a lot of money much of it for road projects. But others are getting lots of money as well.

Despite subfreezing temperatures and snow flurries, several construction workers operate excavators to load soil into a dump truck at Central Ohio Transit Authority's new para-transit bus facility near the fairgrounds. The new 104-thousand square foot facility to help disabled riders is being built with the help of stimulus dollars.

COTA received $16.2 million in stimulus; it's using $5 million on the para-transit facility. The rest is being spread around, said COTA president Bill Lhota .

"We are rehabilitating our 275,000 square foot fixed-route bus facility on Fields Avenue. So we used $5 million for that. It was about $20 million project. We also are using it for assets at our McKinley facility on McKinley Avenue. We're installing a new tire pressure to check the tire pressure as they come in from their runs," he said.

The primary goal of the federal stimulus program is to encourage job creation. Lhota was hesitant to say if the federal money they've used so far - about forty percent of the funds - have created any jobs. He preferred the word preservation. Lhota said 213 positions were saved because of the federal grant.

"A lot of this work is contract, but, yes, the potential was there that if these folks didn't have this work they wouldn't have work for their employees. But it's hard to determine if they're new jobs or preservation. So we like to say we preserved these jobs," Lhota said.

"We would not have been able to do all of these projects without the stimulus grant that we received," he said.

COTA was not the only agency in Central Ohio to receive a large sum of grant money. The Columbus Regional Airport Authority plans to improve the way it screens baggage at Port Columbus with a portion of the more than $40 million it received through the Transportation Security Administration.

Angie Tabor speaks for the airport authority. She says $35 million will be used to build an inline baggage screening system. "People will be able to drop their luggage off at the ticket counter like they used to be able to do and then go forward with getting on their flight. And so what that will do is remove the five large screening clusters from the center of our ticketing lobby. So not only will the project result in more space in the ticket lobby and improved aesthetics, but enhance security measures with the new equipment," she said.

"$35 million to do that. That seems like a lot of money when you break it down where is all the funding going? The entire project is about $51 million dollars. And that cost includes removing the current screening system that's in place, and installing about a mile worth of conveyor belts. The luggage will be transported from behind the ticket counter to these new buildings located outside of the airport. And so constructing the conveyor belts, installing the screening technology, creating the new facility to warehouse all of this equipment, it quickly adds up," Tabor said.

Another $5 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency will help pay for a new system to collect harmful plane deicing fluid.

As for the number of jobs, the airport authority cannot specifically say yet how many positions are being created or saved with the stimulus dollars. The baggage screening project is in the planning and design phase. It's set to be complete next year.

While COTA and the airport authority received large amounts of money, the numbers pale in comparison to what one of the largest employer's in the area received. Ohio State University, so far, has been awarded some $83 million for research. Caroline Whitaker is the vice president for research at Ohio State.

"This allowed us to accelerate research," Whitaker said.

Whitaker said the Center for Clinical and Translation Science got $5 million. Researchers will use the money to study the genetics of heart disease, diabetes and obesity in post-menopausal women.

"So looking at the genetics of those three diseases and being able what to say, you know, what is it about the genetics that predisposes women to those diseases," she said.

Whitaker was asked if all the research projects were necessary, or if some of them could have been put on hold. She said when it comes to research she's always in a hurry. And when it comes to finding a cure for a disease...

"It's never something that you can put off. So there are projects that if it we waited three months could we have not done that robot project? Yeah, I think so. But I think for healthcare there's a little bit more of a, of an urgency. You know, but also on the other hand there's climate change. And that's urgent as well," she said.

OSU began hiring last summer. And so far it's added some 330 new jobs. But Whitaker says the hiring takes time.

"Once you get an award it takes you a little while to you now write the job descriptions, do the interviews, make the selections. So that number, you know, will dramatically increase. That 330 jobs I think really reflects the early grants that were awarded to Ohio State, and that there's been enough time elapsed that we can actually hire those people," Whitaker said.

If was tough for Whitaker to predict how many jobs could be created once all the grants come in. She said a pie in the sky figure is 1,000, but she underscored she could be way off.

Whitaker said stimulus dollars that are funding work on roads and bridges are seen by people every day. But the impact that research is having on the community is not as visible.

"It takes a little while to actually see the fruits of that research, but we'll certainly get there," Whitaker said.