Big bus stimulus for St. Cloud? Maybe not


Four months ago, a St. Cloud-based bus factory was the poster child for federal stimulus opportunity. Today, instead of buses, a big dose of reality got delivered.

The New Flyer factory acknowledged a major order to build 140 diesel electric hybrid buses in St. Cloud -- work that was supposed to begin this week -- has been postponed indefinitely.

The CEO said the customer (didn't say which customer) planned to buy the buses using only state (didn't say which state) money because federal stimulus money available to buy the buses was parceled out to other capital projects. The customer is seeking state funds but doesn't know when that will come, so the order's been postponed.

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Ordinarily, this is not a huge deal. Companies cancel orders all the time. New Flyer says the $122 million order represented only about 3 percent of its total order backlog.

But here's the thing: In March, Vice President Joe Biden came to laud the plant as the kind of company that would benefit big-time from the federal stimulus. In a video of the speech prominent on the New Flyer site, Biden said:

...because of the recession, local governments are having trouble and that's why the Recovery Act is providing the help to local governments, including $8 billion specifically to local governments to fund their mass transit systems. In other words, to buy the buses that you're gonna make.

New Flyer says it has received orders from cities including Philadelphia, Chicago and Milwaukee to buy buses fully or partially with stimulus funds. So it's not like money isn't flowing.

But as MPR News and ProPublica have reported the past couple weeks, the stimulus package isn't as stimulating as people in St. Cloud expected.

And what test do we use for deciding stimulus success?

Metro Transit today announced it got $1.5 million in stimulus money to hire some new officers. The first bunch of Minnesota transportation projects that got stimulus money included snow fences and resurfacing.

We've been asking citizens in our Public Insight Network about their expectations for the stimulus. Most of the 40 or so folks who've responded expected some benefit didn't think it would help tremendously.

Dan Hauck of Cedar, MN, thought it would hurt the economy ultimately. "It will affect me and my kids by putting an incredibly large debt on all tax payers for many years," he wrote us.

So what is the right way to think about the stimulus? If it does something to get us out of the economy is that enough? Even if it comes up short of expectations in places like St. Cloud?

If you some insight on a local stimulus project or expect to benefit from stimulus money, drop a line and tell us.