The shovels are finally ready. But is anyone paying attention?
With a flurry of stimulus construction work getting under way some 16 months after the $787 billion package was signed into law, the Obama administration has billed the coming season "Recovery Summer." This week the administration issued a report on the stepped-up pace of work, rolled out Vice President Joe Biden to brief reporters on its progress and President Barack Obama went to Columbus, Ohio, on Friday to laud the 10,000th stimulus-financed highway project.
For all the talk of "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects when the stimulus first passed, construction projects made up a comparatively small slice of the package, and many required considerable administrative spade work — planning, permitting and contracting — before actual dirt could be turned. The stimulus initially injected money into the economy mainly through tax cuts and aid to states and individuals.
Now that the long-promised "road work ahead" is here, in big numbers, the question is whether voters will warm to the stimulus. The stakes for the Obama administration and Democrats are high, with the midterm elections approaching and many voters, Tea Party supporters and otherwise, incensed about spending.
Stimulus-financed construction is set to explode this summer: 10,700 highway projects should be under way next month, up from just 1,750 in July 2009. States expect to weatherize 82,000 homes this summer — 27 times the paltry number of homes that were weatherized last summer, when the program got off to a slow start. And there will be 2,828 clean-water projects under construction, a 20-fold increase over last year.
But with the recovery uneven at best, getting anyone excited about that may be tough. Not to mention that for many Americans, this is shaping up as Oil Spill Summer. So it was perhaps unsurprising that Biden’s stimulus briefing wound up making more news for his criticism of a Republican congressman who apologized to BP for the fund that the administration demanded of it, than it did for Biden’s talk of more greater roadwork.
"The public’s attention span is quite limited," said Pete Ruane, the president of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, an industry group, who credited the stimulus with helping workers as states have cut their road building budgets, and who said that construction would peak soon. "I think people’s concerns are more with the overall economy, not with the benefits or the costs of the stimulus program."
The stimulus has been credited by many economists with helping the economy grow again and creating jobs; the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan agency, estimated last month that it had created between 1.2 million and 2.8 million jobs. But with the unemployment rate remaining stubbornly close to 10 percent — even worse than what Obama’s economic advisers initially forecast in the absence of a stimulus plan — the stimulus continues to get mixed reviews in many public opinion polls. Hence the renewed public relations push.
Visiting Columbus on Friday, Obama surrounded himself with workers in hard hats and safety vests and recited the litany of signs the White House has taken to mentioning lately as part of its effort to convince Americans that the economic recovery, aided by the stimulus, is helping to boost job growth. "As my friend Joe Biden, who has done great work on the recovery act, would say, this is a big … deal," the president joked, alluding to Biden’s profanity-peppered line about the importance of the health care bill.
Republicans have been hammering away at the stimulus. The House Republican leader, Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, derided the "Recovery Summer" campaign in a statement Friday.
"A jobless recovery is a far cry from what Ohioans were promised," he said.
Democrats are hoping that the burst of highly visible construction work in the months leading up to the November elections — of buildings rising and orange cones giving way to smoother roads and wider bridges — will reassure voters that they have put the money to good use.
There will be 218 federal buildings under construction next month, nearly four times the amount last July, according to the White House tally. California will have 450 stimulus highway projects under way this summer, up from nine last summer. Roughly 29,244 miles of road will be improved this summer, officials said, up from just 9,185 miles last summer. (During the New Deal, by contrast, the far bigger Works Progress Administration was credited with building or fixing 650,000 miles of roads.)
By initially comparing the investment in public works projects in the stimulus to the creation of the Interstate Highway system, Obama may have raised expectations for transformational change too high. Ruane, of the transportation industry group, said that for all the good the stimulus was doing, in many cases it was simply paying for projects that states could no longer afford to pay for — dampening the impact.
Now industry groups and officials are already wondering about what happens when this burst of money is spent. In Ohio, Obama spoke of the need to invest more in infrastructure projects in order to compete globally. "We’ve got to get serious," he said, "about our infrastructure."