“Shovel Ready or Not?”

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“Because states had to choose projects quickly and in many cases chose them well before the Recovery Act was even written, many either didn’t consider the distressed areas criteria until late in the planning process or used their own criteria rather than the federal requirements.”

That powerful comment about the distribution of transportation funds, comes from a recent Council of State Governments report, “Shovel Ready or Not?” The report examines four fundamental facets of highway stimulus spending: the speed with which states spent the money; where those dollars went; how the money was accounted for; and the impact of the spending on jobs and other measures. We recommend the entire report, but nuggets like the one quoted above were particularly interesting.

For example, the report notes that some high-unemployment states received less funding per capita than other states with lower unemployment. That was a direct result of the fact that ARRA relied on existing federal programs and formulas for its allocations.

There’s also some fascinating commentary on the tension between spending speedily and spending well. States that were hard-pressed to get all the funds expended quickly, as we’ve noted in earlier posts, weren’t necessarily dawdlers, but in many cases were using the funds to tackle larger, longer-term projects than the states which spent more quickly. The CSG report highlights Florida’s efforts to build interchanges in Miami and Tampa as an example of those bigger projects.

The CSG also discusses whether a less than proportionate share of money, measured by population or economic impact went to urban areas. It is a tricky question that gets to the challenge of prioritizing the nation’s transportation needs. The short answer seems to be that less money did go to cities. The longer answer is that, in many cases, it might have been impractical or undesirable to focus more money on cities at the expense of other distressed areas.

Finally, CSG underscores the difficulty of assessing the impact of the stimulus spending, not only with respect to complex job counts, but the even greater challenge of figuring out the long-term transportation benefits gained for the nation. As it currently stands, neither the states nor the federal government are able to provide a full performance impact of ARRA spending. Will they ever? Or will the stimulus’s legacy be written, as this report suggests, “state by state, community by community, project by project and job by job?”

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