’Shovel-Ready’? States Grapple With Definition

Tue December 30, 2008 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson




The incoming administration of Barack Obama is proposing to invest in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars to stimulate the economy and there is no shortage of takers. Local, state and regional entities are hurriedly cobbling together lists of infrastructure projects on which to spend the money.

What is lacking are clear guidelines for how the money will be distributed and what kind of projects will qualify for funding. The only original criterion for an acceptable project was that it be “shovel-ready,” which was interpreted to mean that dirt on a project could be turned “quickly.” Unfortunately, “quickly” was variously defined as anywhere from 30 to 120 days; it still lacks clear definition.

Project ideas have proliferated and been sent to Washington from all across the country. The National Governors Association’s list of projects, for example, totaled $136 billion. The U.S. Conference of Mayors quickly came up with $73 billion worth of work. The American Public Works Association conducted a mini-survey of its members who reported back with $15 billion in work just waiting to be funded.

Some of the lists probably overlap, with a project being listed more than once. The likelihood of duplication increases when various agencies and associations in an individual state produce individual lists. Furthermore, the definition of “shovel-ready” also has grown more elastic, with “quickly” now being defined by some authorities as six months down the road.

The very swiftness with which the public works idea was proposed and seems to be moving toward fruition has created a reverse reaction among some observers, who worry that massive spending will inevitably produce massive waste. Economist Alan D. Viard, a former senior official of the Federal Reserve and visiting scholar at the Treasury Department, said he is put off by the scale of the Obama stimulus planning when combined with the speed of its enactment.

“You hope all the stuff in it is a good investment,” Viard said,” but when I hear some of these huge numbers, my concern is that much of it is bound to be poorly planned. The problem is, spending it all as quickly as you can — to get the stimulus — undermines the goal of making sure they are good investments.”

What follows is a sampling of late December project proposals from agencies across the United States:

APWA

The American Public Works Association’s (APWA) $15 billion list is not intended to be comprehensive, said Jim Fahey, the association’s director of government and public works. “We were interested in finding out where things stood at the time we took the survey in November. Given the interest in how many ready-to-go projects there are out there, we thought it was important to survey members at that particular moment. It is pretty clear there are a significant number of projects.”

APWA has nearly 30,000 members and reports from many of them came back from 43 states. Identified needs ranged from a single project in North Dakota costing about $750,000 to 196 projects in Arizona totaling more than $2.5 billion. California members alone listed 572 of the 3,600 unfunded projects in the survey.

“We didn’t ask for specifics,” Fahey said, “but we did find out many are for transportation work.” These include road widening, paving and intersection improvement jobs. Other tasks include sewer line and pumping station upgrades, pedestrian underpasses and sidewalk repair.

Ohio Regional Agency

The Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency came up with two lists all by itself. The agency serves five counties along Lake Erie in the greater Cleveland area.

A primary list has a price tag of $197 million, according to Jonathan Giblin, the agency’s transportation planner. “These are approved projects that have been through the vetting process and we can vouch for them. They are shovel-ready.”

The second group of projects from various agency members includes sewer and water construction jobs and will cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars to complete. “Some are more ready than others,” Gilbin admitted, noting that a really firm timeframe has not come from Washington. Indeed, the agency is hoping the “shovel-ready” guidelines will be loosened some more. The agency board formally asked that Congress “consider some flexibility in the timeframe for encumbering these funds.”

“Our lists are simply illustrative to show Congress what the needs are in northeast Ohio, not necessarily that these projects are the ones that will be funded,” Gilbin said. In other words, please don’t put strings on the money. “Our understanding from legislators is that the appropriations bill will not contain a specific list of projects.”

Rather, the agency wants the money to be distributed through normal appropriations channels and the agency will, in turn, fund projects according to a pre-existing order of projects. One task the coordinating agency did prioritize is the Innerbelt Bridge in Cleveland that serves three interstate highways.

The 50-year-old bridge has been slated for rehabilitation. However, a more recent Ohio Department of Transportation audit closed the bridge to truck and bus traffic and now considers it a candidate for new construction. The agency argues that the bridge “should be awarded sufficient funds for completion as soon as possible, over and above any other stimulus or formula transportation funds allotted to Ohio.”

Ohio DOT has not submitted a statewide stimulus list of its own. However, Gov. Ted Strickland joined other governors in appealing to the new administration for a quick “recovery package” including infrastructure investments.

Arizona DOT

Several project lists are circulating in Arizona, but Arizona Department of Transportation spokesman Doug Nintzel sees no conflict in multiple lists. “I wouldn’t use the term ’competing lists.’ You simply have different entities with their own work to do. They are all preparing their lists in anticipation of a [stimulus] program. We will see what the criteria turn out to be and we will have a better idea of what can be funded.

“It is correct to use the term ’wish list’ at this point,” he added. “At some point we will find out what projects qualify.”

One ADOT wish list of 100 projects asks for $870 million. Those undertakings range from pavement resurfacing and sign replacement to new freeway construction. A separate category for mass transit projects totals $8.5 million. Eight aviation projects will require $356 million to complete. They range from several small community airport jobs to a $166 million people-mover project at Sky Harbor International Airport, which serves Phoenix.

Meanwhile the Maricopa Association of Governments, an Arizona metropolitan planning organization, has its own list of 725 projects (which includes some ADOT work) that will cost just under $7 billion — $6.995 billion, to be exact. And that is not yet a firm number.

“The number might be revised as we go forward,” said Nathan Pryor, the association’s senior policy planner. “We want to be responsive to legislation when it does move and not limit our options.”

The $7 billion is broken into three categories: projects that can be started in 30 to 120 days (approximately $1.6 billion), started in 121 days to 180 days ($2 billion) and started in 6 months or longer ($3.4 billion). The work is distributed among 26 town, city, county, transit agency and Indian jurisdictions.

Connecticut Qualms

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) compiled a list of 1,300 projects in 94 towns that are ready to go as quickly as $2.6 billion can be found to pay for them. The organization estimates the sum needed to upgrade infrastructure in all towns in the state is $3.35 billion.

The CCM list identifies 568 transportation jobs — 163 bridges, 260 local roadways, 76 dams, 40 mass transit and 29 rail. The remaining projects vary from wastewater facilities to parks to municipal buildings. “I can assure you — Hometown Connecticut is ready to go,” declared James J. Finley, the conference’s executive director, when the list was revealed.

The CCM board also recommended that 60 percent of stimulus funding bypass the state bureaucracy and be pumped directly to regional and local governments. That recommendation might not have set too well with Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who in a subsequent news release pushed back against the organization of municipalities. The governor said that the organization’s list of projects didn’t meet the criteria as she understands them to be.

“While the [municipalities] survey is rich with variety, it is light on details essential in developing a prioritized list of projects that will reinvigorate the state’s economy and create dependable jobs,” Rell declared. “In many cases, what has arrived in my office is a ’wish list’ of municipal projects — everything from tennis courts to new paint jobs – that have likely languished at the bottom of priority lists for years.

The governor went on to say that, “to be truly ’shovel-ready,’ projects have to meet some fairly strict definitions. They have to be fully designed; they have to be fully permitted — and that includes not only all of the state, local and federal permits needed but also any inspections, surveys or reports required from agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and they have to be ready to break ground within 180 days of getting the money.”

While breaking ground in 180 days is an expansion of the original understanding of “shovel-ready,” apparently even six months is too soon for the Conference of Municipalities projects: Rell said it is not clear that any of the surveyed projects even qualify.

Texas Ready to Go to Work

The Texas Department of Transportation has pulled together $5 billion in projects for the new administration. “They would start between January and August of ’09,” explained DOT spokesperson Karen Amacker. “These are projects in which we can put shovels in the ground and put people to work.”

A large percentage of them are small, as construction projects go, she said. Applying seal coats to pavement, for example. “Larger projects are few and far between,” said Amacker. She cited the widening of U.S. 281 in south Texas to four lanes from two as one of the pricier projects and erection of a flyover interchange in the state capital of Austin as another.

Some Lone Star State officials are questioning whether maintenance work is the best use for a sudden infusion of money. “What I want to do is … not act like we’re getting a big ol’ Christmas gift where the only issue is the money. We need to be sure we’re going to spend the money well,” a Houston newspaper quoted state Sen. Kirk Watson.

Texas highway officials have not prioritized their projects. Amacker said the funding order would depend upon the specific provisions in stimulus legislation and subsequent decisions by Texas transportation officials.

“It is way above my pay grade to determine the status of any project,” the spokesperson said. “Anyway, we haven’t had those kinds of conversations yet.”

It should be noted that other “wish lists” are floating around the state. Example: San Antonio is asking for $1.1 billion for green energy projects, a convention center overhaul and street and drainage work.

Reluctant Idaho

Gov. Butch Otter’s reaction to Obama’s stimulus proposal was atypical, to say the least. He wasn’t sure Idaho wanted any part of it.

“If you are just going to give us money that is going into our general fund, you might as well keep it,” the governor’s media person, John Hanian, said when the idea was first floated. “That’s like giving alcohol to an alcoholic. Our governor is very cautious about taking blank checks from the federal government. We do not want to add to this country’s problems.”

That said, Idaho authorities have worked up a list of jobs that will cost $2.5 billion to complete. Hanian insisted the process is still tentative, however, because Idaho officials are still trying to clarify the format for submitting a list. For example, he asked if the number of jobs created by projects is part of the equation? “If we are competing with other states for stimulus money, we need the criteria Congress is looking for. Those questions are rapidly getting figured out now. When we can get those questions answered, we can submit a list in the form they want it.”

Part of Idaho’s tepid response to the offer of federal aid can be traced to an already uneasy relationship with Washington. Hanian noted that three-fifths of land in Idaho is controlled by the federal government through the U.S. Forestry Service, the Department of the Interior and other federal agencies. Idaho communities abutting forests have seen their economies shrink after federal authorities withdrew permission to use natural resources in local industries. Consequently, some of the projects on the list will address those economic situations.

Reluctance aside, Hanian said the governor “applauds” the federal government for reaching out to states. If infrastructure projects can be funded at a level that the nation can afford and will truly benefit Idaho without adding to the state’s burden of federal mandates, Otter is said to be supportive of the effort.

“We’re cautious,” Hanian said. “And we’re optimistic that we can access some of the stimulus funding. But we’re not just going to back up the U-Haul and say, ’Fill’ er up, boys.’”