As Louisiana begins to feel the economic gris-gris that's infesting the nation, interest is turning to the massive — as much as $850 billion — public works package President-elect Barack Obama is proposing. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate say they are drafting the necessary legislation. They hope to pass the finished product through both chambers before Obama takes office on Jan. 20, 2009, but political oddsmakers doubt Congress will approve anything in excess of a $64-billion first installment. As for how the initial cash will be used, there are clear signs that transportation-related construction is at the forefront.
In a recent radio address, Obama called for "the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s." While a variety of projects could emerge from what is being coined Obama's New New Deal, this first phase is shaping up to be competitive for roads and highways. Under normal circumstances, public officials would embrace such news. But these aren't normal circumstances. Obama says he wants the projects up and running within six months of his inauguration, which is warp speed in the slow, study-plagued universe of highway construction.
Concerns have only recently started to bubble up from the local level. Bill Fontenot, the state Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) representative for Acadiana, says major portions of the I-49 overhaul project won't be eligible. That's because it's a huge undertaking with elevated sections, and it's estimated to cost a fortune. The segment from Bayou Lafourche to New Orleans alone could run nearly $4 billion. Fontenot says officials are scraping together smaller projects that they hope will fit into the parameters of the stimulus package.
State Sen. Reggie Dupre, a Bourg Democrat, says 60 percent of the projects in his region are out of the running because of the timeline. That includes the highly touted Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane protection system, which is being constructed over a 72-mile path. A small lift-span bridge in Larose was the only "ready-to-go" or "shovel-ready" project that Dupre could think of from his area. He says other coastal regions will soon come to the same realization.
"Most coastal public works projects require federal permitting and that's going to be a challenge because those permits take longer than six months to obtain," Dupre says. "We really need Louisiana's congressional delegation to push a waiver for some of these permits."
Calls seeking comment from the public information office of DOTD last week went unreturned. According to a national survey the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) conducted this month, Louisiana has 58 "shovel-ready" projects on tap totaling $423 million. The nonprofit advocacy group identified 5,000 "ready-to-go" projects nationwide worth $64 billion, and it wants Obama to include them all. John Horsley, AASHTO's executive director, says the projects identified could be under contract within 180 days, and he describes them as smaller efforts that otherwise would be axed from budgets during these trying times. "Right now, 41 states are facing budget shortfalls and many of our state departments of transportation have had no choice but to delay critical projects that will fill potholes, enhance safety and extend the lifespan of the nation's aging bridges," Horsley says.
While AASHTO's survey has DOTD labeling 58 projects as "ready-to-go," Louisiana's northern neighbor, Arkansas, has fewer residents than the Bayou State and more than double the projects — 130 in all, totaling $1.1 billion — ready to take on stimulus funding. Critics are quick to blame the state transportation department's bureaucracy. Most recently, GOP Congressman Charles Boustany slammed state officials for a mounting backlog of projects that have yet to move. He detailed several in a letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal, a fellow Republican, including 17 Louisiana projects from the 2005 federal highway bill, 11 of which have not yet begun construction.
Boustany's rant could also apply to the coming stimulus package, should Louisiana land few projects. "I understand many factors impact the implementation of transportation projects; however, I remain concerned that the process is broken when federal dollars remain locked up with no clear plan for moving forward," he wrote to Jindal.
Why Obama, and the states, should want a stimulus package is clear to anyone who watches the news. Just consider this factoid from the Federal Highway Administration: For every $1.25 billion spent on transportation projects, approximately 35,000 jobs are created. It's a valuable bargaining chip in light of recent news that employers cut 533,000 workers from their payrolls in November, the highest rate in nearly 30 years. Jobfox, an Internet-based career company, predicts the first phase of Obama's New New Deal will boost five key job categories, including construction workers, project managers, civil engineers, computer-aided drafting specialists and telecommunications engineers.
Skeptics contend infrastructure spending won't do enough for the economy in such a short period of time. They also fear Obama's stimulus package could become a carrier for pet projects and wasteful pork-barrel spending. That fear could be well founded. A group of U.S. mayors has submitted a list to Obama's transition team that includes a variety of projects, including fairs and festivals. Conservationists argue that the call for creating more "green jobs" through the stimulus package likewise means an opportunity for spending on coastal restoration.
But with 41 states facing budget shortfalls, including Louisiana with its anticipated $2 billion deficit, the stimulus money, no matter how it arrives and how many hoops must be cleared, will be welcomed with open arms by public officials around the nation. After all, just like Obama, they want to be re-elected.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.