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Lure of Stimulus Funds Propels Vt. Into Work Mode

Fri February 27, 2009 - Northeast Edition

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) For the past few months, engineers across Vermont have been peering into culverts, poking at bridges and testing pavement to determine the best use for the much-anticipated federal stimulus money intended to jump-start the nation’s ailing economy.

Even before the federal money starts to flow to the states, the anticipation of those funds have helped keep Vermont engineers and technicians at work to ensure that the state has a ready arsenal of projects that could be launched this spring.

“It’s been keeping us very busy,’’ said George Bogue, an associate with Stantec Consulting Services Inc., the South Burlington outpost of an international engineering firm. “It’s been great. Back in the September-October time frame, we didn’t have a lot of work. This has really kept Vermonters employed through the winter.’’

Despite the dire economic times and an escalating state budget deficit, the Vermont Agency of Transportation found enough money upfront to hire the outside consultants because state employees couldn’t handle the extra work.

The state has known about the need for the projects for years. But many couldn’t even be considered before stimulus funding for the projects seemed imminent.

“This is a bubble in our workload. It doesn’t make sense to hire new, permanent folks,’’ said Wayne Symonds, a structures design engineer for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

So companies like Stantec and other firms have been contracted by the state to check the membranes on bridge decks, an impermeable surface between the asphalt and concrete designed to protect the reinforcing steel in the concrete from rusting. They’ve also been hired to examine aging culverts to see which can be reinforced so the state can avoid rebuilding them.

Preventive maintenance can add 25 to 30 years to the life of the structures, Symonds said.

“It’s really a good bang for your buck,’’ he said.

On Feb. 17, President Barack Obama signed the $787 billion federal stimulus package. Vermont is expected to receive $722 million over the next couple of years. Between $120 million and $130 million of Vermont’s share is designated for the Transportation Agency. Tax cuts included, residents should see a total benefit of about $1.3 billion.

The White House estimated the package would create about 8,000 jobs in Vermont over the next two years. The most recent figures peg Vermont’s unemployment rate at 6.4 percent with about 22,000 residents out of work. The national unemployment rate is 7.6 percent.

Meanwhile, Transportation spokesman John Zicconi estimated his agency spent about $1 million to get ready for the stimulus package.

“The question is, How can we not afford to gear up for something that is going to potentially provide us with $120 million to $130 million?’’ Zicconi said.

Pat Natale, the executive director of the Virginia-based American Society of Civil Engineers, said stimulus projects could boost the U.S. economy, much like the interstate highway system did after it was launched more than half a century ago.

“We’re still riding on those roads that came out of the Eisenhower Administration,’’ Natale said.

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