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Patrick hits back at critic over stimulus spending

Says congressman’s analysis too simple

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / October 4, 2009

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Governor Deval Patrick yesterday vigorously challenged the findings of a powerful congressman who had sharply rebuked the governor for not spending nearly a half-billion dollars in federal highway stimulus funds quickly enough to create jobs for struggling families.

US Representative James L. Oberstar, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, had written a letter to Patrick on Thursday stating that Massachusetts ranks 49th in the nation in putting the money to work, having committed only 23 percent of its funds so far.

In a letter to Oberstar yester day, Patrick argued that the congressman’s rebuke was based on an “inappropriate one-size-fits-all analysis,’’ because it takes into account only the speed at which the funds are being spent and not the projects that are being undertaken or their ultimate economic benefit.

Rather than using highway stimulus money on mostly “simple maintenance and repaving projects,’’ Massachusetts is spending the money “to develop more ambitious projects,’’ Patrick wrote. He cited as an example $15 million of highway stimulus money that is being used to build a road for the redevelopment of Assembly Square in Somerville into a new shopping center with millions of square feet of mixed-used development.

“Because of its complexity, this investment will take time to deliver, but it is time that is clearly worth the effort,’’ Patrick wrote. “This investment, as well as other similar investments we plan to announce soon, will yield long-term economic growth and their job creation will greatly exceed that which could be accomplished by undertaking simple maintenance and repaving projects.’’

Massachusetts was among five states that received a letter of rebuke from Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat whose committee is charged with monitoring the use of federal stimulus dollars. Seven months after receiving $437 million in federal highway funds, Massachusetts had only about $99 million in construction work underway as of Aug. 31, according to Oberstar’s panel.

“I strongly urge you to refocus your efforts . . . and use the available funds to create and sustain family-wage jobs,’’ Oberstar wrote in his letter to Patrick. “These jobs are critical to Massachusetts and the nation’s long-term economic growth.’’

In an interview yesterday, Jeffrey A. Simon, the governor’s director of infrastructure investment, characterized the difference between Patrick’s focus on longer-term projects and that of other states that are using highway stimulus money more quickly as “sugar versus protein and sprint versus marathon.’’

Oberstar’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Patrick wrote that Oberstar had not taken into account that Massachusetts has been ranked by federal officials in the top 10 among states - and recently as high as fifth - for spending other types of federal stimulus funds, “including critical health care and education investments.’’

In addition, Massachusetts is creating jobs in the near-term by spending more of its own money - $721 million this year - to repair crumbling roads and bridges than other states, which are deploying their federal highway stimulus funds for those projects, Simon said.

“If you look at the whole picture,’’ Simon said, “you’ll find a story that is one we’re very proud of, that accomplishes those dual goals of jobs for today and jobs for tomorrow.’’