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Stimulus Fixing Pot Holes, Not Bridges

Some actual investigative reporting from the Associated Press:

The I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

AP IMPACT: Bad bridges passed up for stimulus cash

By Brett J. Blackledge And Matt Apuzzo, Associated Press Writers

WASHINGTON – Tens of thousands of unsafe or decaying bridges carrying 100 million drivers a day must wait for repairs because states are spending stimulus money on spans that are already in good shape or on easier projects like repaving roads, an Associated Press analysis shows.

President Barack Obama urged Congress last winter to pass his $787 billion stimulus package so some of the economic recovery money could be used to rebuild what he called America’s "crumbling bridges." Lawmakers said it was a historic chance to chip away at the $65 billion backlog of deficient structures, often neglected until a catastrophe like the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed two years ago this Saturday.

States, however, have other plans. Of the 2,476 bridges scheduled to receive stimulus money so far, nearly half have passed inspections with high marks, according to federal data. Those 1,123 sound bridges received such high inspection ratings that they normally would not qualify for federal bridge money, yet they will share in more than $1.2 billion in stimulus money.

The wooden bridge built in 1900 carrying Harlan Springs Road in Berkeley County, W.Va., is one of the nation’s unsafe structures not being repaired. About 2,700 cars cross it every day. But with holes in the wooden deck and corroded railings and missing steel poles, only one car at a time can travel the 300-foot rickety span.

The bridge is an example of how Obama’s call to spend recovery money quickly — on "shovel ready" projects to get people back to work — has clashed with other goals of the stimulus, such as targeting high-unemployment areas and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. State transportation officials say the need for speed makes it hard to funnel money into needy counties or to take on extensive bridge repairs that can involve years of planning and construction.

Repaving or widening roads requires less planning and can be done quickly, which is why such projects account for 70 percent of the $17 billion in transportation stimulus money approved so far. Bridge projects represent 12 percent.

The spending decisions by states are OK with the Obama administration.

Ed Deseve, the president’s chief executive of the stimulus, said the administration understands the desire to tackle "longer-term, gleam-in-the-eye projects" but told states "please, give us your shovel-ready projects."

The idea, he said, was to provide an immediate jolt to the nation’s economy.

"We’re delighted states are able to move quickly," Deseve said.

A few states, such as Virginia and South Carolina, are targeting their troubled bridges. In all, 1,286 deficient or obsolete bridges are expected to share $2.2 billion in stimulus money for repairs, the AP analysis shows.

But that’s less than 1 percent of the more than 150,000 bridges nationwide that engineers have labeled deficient or obsolete. Of those, more than 39,000 are considered the worst, rated poor in at least one structural component and eligible to be replaced with federal money…

The AP then researched each bridge using the latest inspection data available from the Transportation Department.

This analysis found that:

• Many states did not make bridge work a priority in stimulus spending. More than half plan work on fewer than two dozen bridges and 18 states plan fewer than 10 projects.

• In 24 states, at least half of the bridges being worked on with stimulus money were not deficient.

• In 15 states, at least two-thirds of the bridges receiving stimulus money are not deficient.

Transportation officials said the stimulus program’s mandates — shovel-ready projects that can be finished in three years and create jobs quickly — made it nearly impossible to focus on bad bridges that weren’t already scheduled for repairs.

"The feds had their own priorities, and their big priority was jobs and the economy. As a result, we had to move things quickly. I don’t fault that," said John Zicconi, spokesman for the Vermont Agency of Transportation. "Nobody put the stimulus together as an answer to all our bridge issues. It was about putting people to work."

That’s not exactly how it was billed. Obama pointed to the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge during the Great Depression as an example of how transportation money in the new stimulus law could "remake the face of the nation."

"It’s what we’re doing once more, by building a 21st century infrastructure that will make America’s economy stronger and America’s people safer," Obama said in March

Washington state, for example, struggled with a plea from King County officials to help pay for the replacement of the 75-year-old drawbridge that serves as a major corridor in Seattle and connects two of the city’s industrial areas. The bridge’s cracked concrete foundations, widespread corrosion in steel beams and deteriorating moveable spans make it one of the nation’s worst still in daily operation — scoring a 3 out of 100 for structural sufficiency.

State officials couldn’t commit stimulus money to the project, which already was getting local and state funds, said Paula Hammond, the state’s transportation secretary. The South Park bridge was not a state priority, and officials needed to focus on projects that could be completed quickly, Hammond said.

"Every state is going through this because speed was a major, major factor for us," she said.

More than a quarter of Washington’s 7,763 bridges are either deficient or obsolete, inspection records show.

With $27 billion in highway and bridge money, the stimulus provided an important stopgap but is too little to remake the U.S. transportation infrastructure, she added.

"If you wanted that to happen," Hammond said, "you’d probably have to multiply that number by 10."

Well, it looks like yet another Obama promise has passed its expiration date. We seem to recall Mr. Obama touted this as a national undertaking that would surpass both FDR’s WPA and Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System construction combined.

But now it looks like we are just going to get some pot holes filled.

State transportation officials say the need for speed makes it hard to funnel money into needy counties or to take on extensive bridge repairs that can involve years of planning and construction.

Repaving or widening roads requires less planning and can be done quickly, which is why such projects account for 70 percent of the $17 billion in transportation stimulus money approved so far. Bridge projects represent 12 percent.

What’s the logic here? Is planning bridge repairs putting people to work? Doesn’t bridge construction put people to work? And wouldn’t it be better if the jobs went on for years, rather than being quick one-shot items, like repaving a road?

We suspect that real problem that bridge repairs don’t deliver enough propaganda punch for the buck. They aren’t as obvious and flashy as road work.

The states can’t put up as many of their $3,000 a pop ‘Stimulus Money At Work’ signs.

With $27 billion in highway and bridge money, the stimulus provided an important stopgap but is too little to remake the U.S. transportation infrastructure, [Washington State’s Transportation Secretary] added.

"If you wanted that to happen," Hammond said, "you’d probably have to multiply that number by 10."

So once again, (just like with the ‘cash for clunkers’ program), the Obama administration has vastly underestimated the real costs of one of their programs. In this case, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure would cost ten times what they had claimed.

Lucky for us this kind of low-balling will never happen with his estimates about the cost of nationalized healthcare.

(Thanks to Franco for the heads up.)

This article was posted by Steve on Friday, July 31st, 2009. Comments are currently closed.

4 Responses to “Stimulus Fixing Pot Holes, Not Bridges”

  1. GetBackJack says:

    This is one of those times I really should have remembered to have my Flip video camera along for the ride.

    Passing through Vail, Colorado last week I witnessed four of those Obama Stimulus highway construction signs at $20,000 a pop (hat tip Steve Gilbert)

    Highway resurfacing work on I-70, and other improvements to the road. These signs bracketed the west and east approaches to Vail – as narrow a little valley as you can build in. I mean it is JAMMED down in there with resorts, hotels bars restaurants and shops.

    There were maybe 200 road crew working the project. Meanwhile, the real stimulus was going like Jack the bear in town … four of the biggest, most sprawling and truly impressive resort building projects I’ve witnessed in Vail – and that’s nearly 35 years familiarity with the place. These projects are huge (and in this ”terrible” economy!). Not Abu Dhabi or Trump huge but for Vail … I sure wish I had that video camera so you could see how much square footage investors are shoe horning into what already looked like maximum density.

    The real stimulus is private sector investments seeking a profit, the thousands of skilled and unskilled labor employed, the millions of free market dollars going to concrete companies, drywall, electricians, lumbers, roofers, framers … you name it. Furnishings, fittings … wow, it’s hard to calculate what four of these behemoths would cost.

    And did I say private dollars … not government dollars?

    That’s your real stimulus. And in the face of our government sucking trillions of dollars out of the money supply.

  2. MinnesotaRush says:

    While traveling along several miles of Interstate roadway here in the very Blue State of Minnesota, I have now encountered 4 large sections of freeway that have the trademark stimulus signs, lots of cones that direct the traffic down to one lane, and NOT A SINGLE WORKER doing anything! My travels have been both daytime and evening – Monday thru Friday. Nobody, doing nothing; but .. those sign are sure pretty.

    • David says:

      I was thinking of grabbing my camera for the one next to my house. Big Obamasign and the road is completely closed. No actual workers that I noticed except for the two ladies holding one stop sign (standing directly in front of the road closed sign).
      I am beginning to suspect that there was some large contributions to the Obama campaign by the National Road Work Sign Makers Association!

  3. Liberals Demise says:

    “Three cheers for our Savior and Kenya’s native son!”


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