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$50 billion for roads would come on top of stimulus

It was news to raise your hopes, your blood pressure or your eyebrows.

Fifty billion big ones.

That's what President Barack Obama is proposing to spend to start building 150,000 miles of roads, 4,000 miles of railroads and 150 miles of airport runways.

It would stimulate hiring, especially of construction workers, says Obama, who could use a political boost himself.

But wait a minute: Wasn't job creation the purpose of last year's federal stimulus? What about all of those "shovel ready" projects?

That was one goal of the stimulus, but hardly the only one. Still, nothing about the stimulus caught on like the phrase "shovel ready."

"That term became sort of used generically," said Don Winstead, Gov. Charlie Crist's adviser on stimulus spending. But in the law, he said, transportation spending was about "some particular pots of money, not the whole thing."

And they weren't even the biggest pots. Congress designated 6 percent of the $787 billion in stimulus funding for transportation projects.

The rest? It goes for everything from supporting laid-off workers to keeping teachers in the classroom to providing temporary tax relief to individuals and businesses.

Overall, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 set out five purposes: to preserve or create jobs; to help those hit hardest by the recession; to invest in technology related to science and health; to pay for transportation or projects with long-term economic benefits; and to stabilize state and local government budgets.

"Where the infrastructure goal is emphasized by Congress, it's really emphasized in the context of providing longer-term economic benefits," Winstead said.

In Florida, nearly half of the state's stimulus funds go directly to individuals through Medicaid, unemployment compensation and extra money for food stamps.

For the money flowing through state agencies, the largest category of spending is education, with nearly $4 billion awarded.

"It's clear that without the Recovery Act funding, there would be something over 20,000 teachers that currently would not have money to support their jobs," Winstead said.

Statewide, the stimulus has created an estimated 167,000 jobs. Winstead says Florida's unemployment rate, which rose to 11.7 percent in August, would be one-half to 1 1/2 points higher without the stimulus. Nationally, unemployment might be as much as 1.8 percent higher without the stimulus, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

But the scope of the original stimulus vs. the focus of Obama's proposed new program is not the only question. There's also this: Where would the money come from? The administration has said that it would offset the cost of the $50 billion initiative — which it describes as an upfront investment on a six-year plan to build transportation infrastructure — by eliminating tax breaks and subsidies to the gas and oil industry. Obama has also proposed creating a government-run infrastructure bank to pay for future projects by pooling tax dollars with private investment.

No thanks, say congressional Republicans.

"I think most people just view it as another tax-and-spend proposal," said U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Not only that, Mica said, but this proposal comes even as billions of stimulus dollars for transportation and infrastructure projects sit idle or are tied up in red tape.

Nationwide, only 30 percent to 40 percent of the money allocated for transportation projects has been spent, depending on which numbers you use.

In Florida, about 28 percent of an expected $1.38 billion in stimulus transportation funds has been spent. (High speed rail funding is expected to bring another $1.25 billion, but a tiny fraction of it has arrived so far.)

To spend stimulus money more quickly, the Florida Department of Transportation has cut the time from when bids are opened to when work begins from 106 days to 67 days.

Work has begun on 86 percent of Florida's highway projects. But the state has lagged behind other states largely because it has used less of its stimulus money on resurfacing roads, something that can be started and finished quickly, Winstead said.

Unlike northern states, Florida doesn't salt its roads in the winter, so there's less need to resurface them. What Florida needs, officials say, is more capacity: new roads and more lanes to relieve congestion.

Those projects take longer to get started, but, Winstead said, they create longer-lasting and better-paying jobs, creating more economic benefit.

There's one other thing you won't see in Florida that you would see elsewhere: huge signs that say "Putting America to Work."

"We made the decision right off the bat," said Dick Kane, spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation. "We were going to spend money on projects, not signs."

Stimulus funds to Tampa Bay through June

Hillsborough: $578.2 million

Pinellas: $304.3 million

Pasco: $114.1 million

Hernando: $45.8 million

Source: Recovery.gov

Federal stimulus

at a glance

Nationwide: $787 billion

Paid out: $515 billion

Number of people employed: 1.4 million to 3.3 million

U.S. Department of Transportation: $44.8 billion announced; $18.9 billion spent

Florida: $23.5 to $24 billion expected

Paid out through June: $11.2 billion

Jobs created or supported: 167,000

Transportation: $1.3 billion awarded; $388.4 million spent through June

Sources: Recovery.gov, Congressional Budget Office, Florida Office of Economic Recovery

Stimulus funds for Tampa Bay road projects

Hillsborough: $86.8 million for new road connecting Interstate 4 and the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway

Pinellas: $39.2 million for new overpasses and new lanes on U.S. 19 from State Road 60 to north of Whitney Road

Pasco: $12.6 million to widen U.S. 41 from Tower Road to the Ridge Road extension

Hernando: $737,444 to resurface State Road 50

Sources: Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Office of Economic Recovery

Possible local project wish list

Tampa: Renovate Laurel, Cass and Brorein street bridges; widen eastern portion of Cross Creek Boulevard.

St. Petersburg: Replace, widen and make taller Pinellas Bayway bridge to St. Pete Beach. (This also could be funded by a federal grant already applied for.)

Hillsborough County: Could include projects such as widening Bruce B. Downs Boulevard or Lutz-Lake Fern Road, which are also up for funding through a proposed 1 percent sales tax for mass transit and road projects.

Pinellas County: Widen Bryan Dairy Road from Starkey Road to 72nd Street; widen parts of Ulmerton Road.

Pasco County: Extend State Road 56 from Meadow Pointe Boulevard to U.S. 301.

Hernando County: Widen Deltona Boulevard from Spring Hill Drive to Philatelic Drive and Sunshine Grove Road from State Road 50 to Star Road.

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$50 billion for roads would come on top of stimulus 09/19/10 [Last modified: Monday, September 20, 2010 8:18am]
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