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‘Earmarks’ for southern Arizona go to Tucson’s streetcar, mountain highway repairs

Tucson’s streetcar plan will inch ahead, more Colorado River water will get to Indian crops and flood damage from 2006 will be repaired on the Mount Lemmon Highway, thanks to a federal spending bill signed last week by President Obama.

The funds will come through “earmarks,” which are federal allocations requested by Arizona members of Congress. The money – $14.3 billion nationwide – is not part of the normal budget vetting process. Some of the money goes to government agencies, and some goes to private companies.

This year, southern Arizona members of Congress collectively will bring home about $56 million, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit that compiles earmark information.

A $2 million request from U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords will go toward design and engineering for a Tucson streetcar approved by voters in 2006, said city Transportation Director Jim Glock.

That project is awaiting federal approval for construction to start, Glock said.

“We expect within the next couple months we will have that approval,” he said.

The $162 million streetcar, which will run from west of the freeway at Avenida de Convento and Congress Street to near the Arizona Health Sciences Center on North Campbell Avenue, is part of the $2.1 billion Regional Transportation Authority plan.

Though the project still lacks about $50 million in federal funding, Glock is confident it will be funded. The $2 million earmark is a step forward, he said.

“It represents congressional recognition of the project, which is huge,” he said.

The RTA plan calls for completion of the streetcar by 2011.

A $25.4 million allocation for the Central Arizona Project will mostly pay for infrastructure to carry the Gila River Indian Community’s 311,000 acre-foot share of Colorado River water to farms there, said CAP General Manager David Modeer.

That money will also pay for CAP infrastructure on the Tohono O’odham Nation, Tonto and San Carlos Apache reservations and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, said Eric Holler, a planner for the Bureau of Reclamation.

A $1.7 million Giffords request will pay for repairs on the Mount Lemmon Highway, said county Transportation Department Director Priscilla S. Cornelio.

Most of the damage – road erosion and crumbled retaining walls and drainage features – was caused during the storm that damaged the road in Sabino Canyon in July 2006, Cornelio said.

“We had 51 locations where there was erosion or damage to the walls or damage to the drainage structures,” she said.

Pima County maintains the highway – also known as Arizona Forest Highway 39 and General Hitchcock Highway – under an intergovernmental agreement dating to the 1920s, Cornelio said.

Other local earmarks will pay for watershed research at University of Arizona, entrepreneurial education at Pima Community College, a Catholic Community Services domestic violence program and Pima County’s Tres Rios del Norte river restoration project on the Santa Cruz River, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to force Congress to curb its pork-barrel-spending ways. Yet the omnibus spending bill sent from the Democratic-controlled Congress to the White House on Wednesday contained 7,991 earmarks totaling $5.5 billion, according to calculations by the Republican staff of the House Appropriations Committee.

The 1,132-page bill has an extraordinary reach, wrapping together nine spending bills to fund the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet department except Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. Among the many earmarks are $485,000 for a boarding school for at-risk native students in western Alaska and $1.2 million for Helen Keller International so the nonprofit can provide eyeglasses to students with poor vision.

The $410 billion bill includes significant increases in food aid for the poor, energy research and other programs. It was supposed to have been completed last fall, but Democrats opted against election-year battles with Republicans.

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