Road officials trying to put stimulus cash to work
Leaders of transportation departments in 18 Western states say the federal highway stimulus package has been a lifesaver for their budgets this summer.
The Associated Press
State transportation officials on Tuesday defended their handling of federal stimulus money for road projects against criticism they haven't moved quickly enough to turn the money into jobs and pavement.
Washington state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond acknowledged at a news conference there's been criticism of how fast states are meeting goals set by President Barack Obama and Congress when the stimulus package was approved in February. That $787 billion package included $27.5 billion for highway and bridge construction and repair.
But Hammond said that nationwide, 2,000 construction projects funded by stimulus dollars are under way, worth more than $6 billion. In all, 5,600 projects worth an estimated $16.7 billion have been approved for bids, she said.
"Barrels and cones are on the road," said Hammond, who was elected president of the Western Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials at the group's meeting Tuesday in Seattle.
The projects are "providing steady and sustained jobs, which are real family wage-earning jobs for workers in our country," she said.
The money also is being stretched farther, Hammond said, because contractors desperate for work in the bad economy are submitting lower bids. In some cases, states are paying as much as 30 percent below engineers' estimates of what projects should cost, she said.
Congressional Republicans have said Obama's stimulus program does too little and comes too late to revive the economy, and will do more long-term damage by increasing government debt. Last week, they argued that transportation money in particular was slow to be spent.
Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House oversight committee, also said last week that he was concerned transportation projects in economically distressed areas were being left out — even though they are supposed to be a priority.
Hammond said all 50 states met a June 30 deadline for obligating 50 percent of their highway stimulus funds, while 15 states have obligated 80 percent.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 51 percent of the highway stimulus money is being spent in economically disadvantaged areas, she said.
Hammond also said federal payment figures don't reflect how quickly stimulus projects are getting under way. States obligate money for projects, then put them to bid and pay winning contractors to start working. The federal government only reimburses the states later, she said.
John Njord, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, said his state has obligated 97 percent of the highway money it's getting under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, with 93 percent of that awarded to contracts.
"We have actually completed projects that are funded with ARRA funds to date," Njord said. "This money is being well spent; it is creating jobs, it is stimulating the economy as it was described to do."
The news conference came shortly after Washington announced its jobless rate in June had increased to 9.3 percent, up from a revised May rate of 9.1 percent. Without stimulus money, Hammond said, the figure would have been worse.
She said Washington's $491 million for highway construction is expected to sustain some 3,700 construction jobs.
Will Kempton, director of the California Department of Transportation and the outgoing president of the 18-state regional association, said the stimulus money has been a lifesaver in the midst of his state's $26 billion fiscal crisis.
California has $1 billion in construction projects under way thanks to its $2.6 billion share of highway stimulus money, with another $750 million expected to be under contract by the end of summer, Kempton said.
"With these Recovery Act dollars coming in it means that some of this work can go forward," he said. "It couldn't come at a better time for the state of California."
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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