Stimulus funds road projects — especially in Obama's Illinois

WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama proudly announced last week that the government had approved its 2,000th transportation project under the economic stimulus plan, he hailed it as a moment "when a generation of Americans seized the chance to remake the face of this nation."

Many of those Americans apparently live in Obama's home state of Illinois.

The Obama list included 249 Illinois projects, far more than any other state. Six states — Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Alaska and Idaho — had no projects when he spoke, although Georgia has since added 22 projects, and the list has grown to 2,163.

The Illinois collection was explained by Marisa Kollias, a spokeswoman for the state transportation department: "We do have a new governor and a new secretary and they've been working diligently."

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Illinois congressman, told the Chicago Tribune that state lawmakers didn't trust former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached earlier this year, to run a major construction program properly, so a lot of projects have been "sitting on a shelf."

Cary Leahey, an economist at Decision Economics in New York, offered another reason: "They knew the system," he said, referring to top administration officials.

Illinois was Obama's longtime home. He represented Illinois in the U.S. Senate until after his election to the White House in November. Illinois also is the home state of LaHood and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who each represented Illinois congressional districts until this year.

Jill Zuckman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the top officials' links to Illinois had nothing to do with who got what projects.

"It doesn't matter who's secretary or president. The only variable is when states submit their projects. We do them as they come in," she said.

Early-bird states won't crowd out latecomers from funds; each state has an allocation based on a funding formula established in previous highway legislation.

Obama's announcement showed both the promise and potential problems the program faces, analysts said.

"Two thousand is a pretty good number in just six weeks," said David Levinson, professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials agreed. "Clearly some states have been a bit more aggressive in getting ready to go," said spokesman Tony Dorsey.

The DOT said that by early summer, all 50 states will share in transportation infrastructure funds from the $787 billion economic stimulus bill that Obama signed in February. Each state must approve spending a certain amount by mid-year or lose the money. The DOT would reallocate any unspent money.

States with few or no projects on Obama's list insist that they'll be ready.

Florida wasn't on Obama's list because the state legislature gave authority to spend its federal transportation stimulus money only last week. However, David Lee, a state transportation department policy planner, said that Florida is now moving quickly to get federal approval for about $1.3 billion to help fund 521 highway and about 100 transit projects.

In Idaho, the legislature hasn't yet approved the transportation budget and the state can't advertise a project until it does, said department spokesman Jeff Stratten.

Alaska's construction season is just beginning, and the state hasn't technically spent any stimulus money on transportation projects. Several are out to bid, said Roger Wetherell, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

In Virginia, transportation department spokesman Jeff Caldwell said the state hasn't yet designated where the money will be spent, but it intends to meet the federal deadline.

Kentucky has four projects listed. The legislature has approved a series of projects, and the list will grow shortly, said transportation department spokesman Mark Brown.

Experts question how quickly these projects will create jobs in any of these states. Obama boasted last week that the money "will create good jobs that pay well and can't be shipped overseas." He also promised that by the end of 2010 "our investment in highway projects alone will create or save 150,000 jobs."

Economist Leahey was optimistic that the projects will be important job creators — but not until later this year. "You're going to have a considerable amount of activity in a sector that's been depressed," he said, but "no one really knows how many of these projects will be ready as soon as June."

The Obama administration has found some projects coming in under the anticipated bid level, which means the funds can cover more tasks. Projects in North Carolina so far are about 19 percent under budget, while Colorado is finding bids as much as 30 percent lower than expected.

The money is expected to be spent over a number of years. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that $2.7 billion, or about 10 percent, of the highway stimulus will be spent this fiscal year.

In fiscal 2010, which begins Oct. 1, it estimates that $6.8 billion will be spent, followed by $5.5 billion in 2011 and $4.1 billion in 2012. The rest would be spent between 2013 and 2016.

(Erika Bolstad contributed to this article.)


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