Where Did the Transportation Stimulus Money Go?

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Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

City of Los Angeles Department of Public Works employees repair a sidewalk on Aug. 12, 2010. California has been given more than $3.7 billion in stimulus funding to address transportation and infrastructure problems

Once upon a time, Republicans hated President Obama's stimulus package because it wasn't pouring enough money into infrastructure. In July, in front of a giant road sign covered in red tape, GOP Representatives complained that only 1% of the package's $48 billion for transportation had been spent. "As funds sit idle, so do workers," said John Mica of Florida, the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Jean Schmidt of Ohio hoisted a bright orange worker's vest for the cameras: "I want to see this all over the highways!" Back then, even House minority leader John Boehner of Ohio was calling for "shovel-ready projects that will create much needed jobs."

Not anymore. Obama's new proposal to pour another $50 billion into "roads, railways and runways" has gotten no support whatsoever from Republicans. They're now marching in lockstep against all stimulus spending; they say the government simply can't create jobs, except through tax cuts. Of course, Obama has proposed new tax cuts as well, and Republicans aren't backing those either. These days, they'd march in lockstep against apple pie if Obama served it.

The President knows this, which is why his new plan should be understood mostly as a political gesture before the midterms, a way of reminding voters that he wants to do stuff and Republicans don't. But it's also an opening salvo in a looming battle over the future of transportation funding in the U.S. Which makes this a good time to ask: What's going on with that first $48 billion?

For starters, it's not all sitting idle anymore. In the past 18 months, Obama's Department of Transportation has committed $38.6 billion to more than 14,600 projects, and the vast majority of them are under way. About 70% of the money is going to highways; the rest is mostly for subways, buses, light rail and other transit projects, plus more than a billion dollars for Amtrak and a similar amount for airports. None of it is going to earmarked projects, and while the impact is not always obvious — most states chose not to erect signs touting the stimulus at construction sites — the work has directly supported an average of 45,800 jobs over the past year, and much more than that over Obama's mocked "Recovery Summer." Those jobs, the White House likes to point out, would all disappear if the GOP fulfilled its pledge to cancel the rest of the stimulus.

But the transportation stimulus funding hasn't revived the construction industry, which still has a 17.3% unemployment rate. And while the pace has increased since a bad-weather winter, only $18.4 billion — a mere 35% of the total — has actually been spent. This is good news, in a way. It means that there should be more of those orange vests on the highway soon. And in fairness to the feds, once they commit money to projects, states have to do the actual spending. That said, at a Cabinet meeting this spring, I watched Vice President Joe Biden lecture Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about moving money faster. "We're all going to be held accountable, folks," Biden said.

It's hard to get transportation projects up and running in a hurry; most of that cash really is going to the most shovel-ready projects. For example, LaHood's highway department has committed every dime of its $26.6 billion, and only 9% is for new roads or bridges. Most of it is going to road resurfacing, safety upgrades and other off-the-shelf fix-it projects that require less preparation. Similarly, Amtrak has focused on replacing old railroad ties (47,713 through May) and bringing banged-up cars and locomotives back into service (36 so far). It may not be as exciting as New Deal projects like Skyline Drive, but repairing battered roads (which cause congestion, damage cars and reduce fuel efficiency) and improving public transit happen to be good public policy. It certainly beats building new sprawl roads and bridges to nowhere; the more-more-more approach to asphalt has only created more-more-more traffic, fuel costs and carbon emissions. "We're spending money on stuff America needs," says Roy Kienitz, DOT's Under Secretary for Policy. "And there's a lot more of that stuff out there."

Fixing creaky infrastructure also helps reduce the national maintenance backlog and ease future deficits, while building new stuff increases the backlog and the deficits. And according to Smart Growth America, repair work generates 16% more jobs than new construction. That said, as I've written, the stimulus was not just about stimulus — even in transportation, the most visible effort to create visible jobs.

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