Groups line up for share of huge stimulus package

Ready-to-go, green projects get emphasis

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / December 15, 2008
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As President-elect Barack Obama and congressional leaders construct a behemoth economic stimulus package, a parade of interest groups is seeking shares of the portion that will go to infrastructure construction projects.

The "ready-to-go" project lists are longer than the supplicants' arms and for sums that would have seemed fantastic only months ago, before the depth of the recession became apparent.

The overall dimensions and details of the stimulus bill remain unclear, but there is a consensus, certainly among Democrats, that it must be big enough to provide a defibrillator-like jolt to the economy to achieve Obama's stated goal of creating or saving 2.5 million jobs in his first two years in office.

How much has the fiscal reality changed? Less than three months ago, a Republican congressional leader described as a "monstrosity" a $60.8 billion stimulus plan that died in the Senate after failing to reach a final vote.

The expanded package could be 10 times that amount or more when it emerges from the House Appropriations and Ways and Means and committees, possibly in the first week of January after the new Congress is sworn in.

Besides spending for bricks-and-mortar infrastructure projects, the package is also expected to provide funds for energy conservation and development of renewable resources, along with tax cuts. The bill that failed in the fall also included funds to help states cover rising Medicaid costs, food assistance, extended unemployment benefits, and money for job training.

Obama is expected to insert as much of his campaign platform as possible into the legislation. But to reach the new president's desk by Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, or soon after, the package would have to avoid the potential delays that can occur when unusual elements are included and complicate appropriations bills.

"On the one hand, you want to use existing mechanisms, absolutely," said an Obama adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan is not finalized. "But you also want to put in place types of serious reforms that make sure the money is well spent." That could include a "use-it-or-lose-it" provision on highway funds, requiring that the funds be spent within a specified, expedited period of time, the adviser said.

Priority will be placed on measures that are "inherently short term and are spent out quickly," he added.

In the area of healthcare, for example, that could mean grants for health information technology systems, but not the longer-term increase in subsidies for coverage that Obama has endorsed. During the campaign, Obama proposed spending $10 billion on health information technology over five years.

Another idea that Obama endorsed during the campaign is a "national infrastructure reinvestment bank," with $60 billion over 10 years, to help finance major projects that will have regional or national impact. It is based on a model proposed in the Senate by Chris Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, and Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska.

Another is Obama's 10-year, $150 billion investment plan to create five million "green jobs" through private development of alternative energy sources.

"There's a very big emphasis on making 'green' investments, where it's a win, win, win situation for the economy," the aide said. Among items on the table are funds for home weatherization, so-called smart meters that measure energy usage in real time, and solar panels for government buildings.

In their pitches for funding, groups are casting in shades of green the multiple benefits of their projects.

"These are projects that will help not only create jobs but help communities, strengthen the economy, make the United States more competitive internationally, and improve environmental conditions," said Casey Dinges, senior managing director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which criticized the decrepit state of this country's infrastructure in 2005 report.

Citing a rise in ridership in the past year, Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association, said: "Just by changing to public transportation from taking a car, an individual can reduce daily carbon emissions by an average of 20 pounds, or more than 4,800 pounds a year."

Miller's organization, which represents public transportation systems, identified 736 public transit projects that would generate an estimated 340,000 jobs at a cost of $12.2 billion.

Other groups advocating for infrastructure funding, include:

  • American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials - $64 billion for more than 5,000 road and bridge projects that would create an estimated 1.8 million jobs.

  • US Conference of Mayors - $73.2 billion for 11,391 projects of various types in 427 cities that would produce 848,000 jobs over two years. In the report, there are more projects for Brockton (93 for $325 million) than Boston (80 totaling $193 million).

  • States for Passenger Rail Coalition - $1.5 billion for 54 projects in 17 states to expand intercity passenger rail links.

  • American Association of Port Authorities - $6.7 billion for more than 150 projects to create 250,000 jobs.

  • Airports Council lnternational/North America - $600 million for airport construction projects to create 35,000 jobs.

    On top of a National Governors Association one-year request for $12 billion - half to cover rising Medicaid costs and half in a "flexible block grants" - individual governors submitted their own lists of construction projects, many of which overlap those of other interest groups.

    For example, Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts submitted a list of projects worth $3.4 billion, and Governor Jim Doyle of Wisconsin listed 1,784 projects, totaling $3.8 billion.

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