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Roads stimulus still in neutral

Back in February, at the height of winter and the bottom of the recession, President Barack Obama signed an economic stimulus bill that led to a $1.3 billion authorization for 521 "shovel-ready'' road and bridge projects in Florida.

The "shovel-ready'' part was important. It meant that the projects could get under way quickly — creating thousands of jobs — once the money arrived.

Now it's the height of summer, unemployment in Florida is heading toward 11 percent, and here's the total number of shovels actually turning on those 521 projects: 0.

Number of construction contracts awarded: Nine.

That's a problem.

"We need this money to have been spent yesterday," said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida.

Still, the state Department of Transportation, which is responsible for spending the money, and local elected leaders say they are pleased with the agency's progress.

And while stimulus money has yet to create many construction jobs, it's been a boon for those who cash government paychecks.

Here, federal money hasn't meant a slew of new jobs but has saved thousands of people from layoffs, including an estimated 26,000 teachers.

• • •

Work on the first local project to get stimulus dollars, the widening of U.S. 41 in Pasco County, begins in August.

The two biggest bay area projects, improvements to U.S. 19 in Pinellas County and an elevated roadway linking Interstate 4 with the Crosstown Expressway in Tampa, won't start for four and nine months, respectively.

Florida is in good company.

A review of federal data indicates the state is one of 16 that has spent less than 1 percent of its available transportation stimulus money.

Nationwide, the state average is just under 4 percent.

With calls coming from some quarters for a second stimulus plan, the figures support the Obama administration's claim that the full impact of its recovery effort has yet to be felt.

There are several reasons for the delay.

Kevin Thibault, the state Transportation Department's assistant secretary for engineering and operations, said he had no authority to begin spending the money until April 15, when the Legislature gave its approval.

Although the federal government's goal was to get projects started quickly, Thibault said the standard rules for spending federal road and bridge money were not relaxed.

Projects must still be advertised and competitively bid. Also, the federal money is not spent until a contractor sends the state an invoice — for 100 feet of guardrail, say — that then is sent to the federal government. Until Florida draws down the money, the dollars sit in a federal trust fund.

Thibault said the few contractors who have gotten stimulus work most certainly have begun hiring or canceled layoff plans.

"Have I created jobs?" Thibault said. "No doubt about it."

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said the agency had been moving as swiftly as possible given the complexities of getting a federally funded construction project under way.

"They were on top of this from day one," Fasano said.

When the money does hit the street, it appears to have an effect.

On July 16, Largo-based R.E. Purcell Construction was awarded a $12.6 million stimulus contract to widen U.S. 41 in Pasco from two lanes to four.

The improvements will stretch from Tower Road to Connerton Boulevard.

The work won't result in an explosion of hiring at R.E. Purcell, perhaps only a new project superintendent, but will prevent significant layoffs.

"We were running out of work very quickly," said company controller Larry Bane. "We definitely would have had to let people go without this job."

• • •

Saving the jobs of tens of thousands of teachers and other government workers has been much easier. Here, officials faced no complex reimbursement system. Knowing that federal money is coming, they can just keep sending checks to people already on the payroll.

That money was pledged two months ago when Gov. Charlie Crist signed a state spending plan that used more than $5 billion in stimulus money to fill budget gaps and help struggling school districts.

State stimulus czar Don Winstead acknowledged that the federal money has yet to reach its potential when it comes to creating private sector employment.

"We are anxious to see those projects break ground," he said, "and for those jobs to be created."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or 727-445-4166.

Bay area stimulus projects

When the federal stimulus money for roads, bridges and transportation enhancements is ultimately spent, here are the three major projects being funded in the Tampa Bay area.

ProjectCostStartsCompletion
An elevated roadway linking Interstate 4 with the Crosstown Expressway, which will provide trucks direct access from the highway to the Port of Tampa$446 million, with

$105 million of that being federal

stimulus dollars
April 2010Late 2014
Build frontage roads and flyovers along U.S. 19 from north of Whitney Road to north of State Road 60$157 million, with

$45 million being

stimulus dollars
NovemberLate 2013
Widening U.S. 41 in Pasco County from Tower Road to Connerton Boulevard from two lanes to four$12.6 million, all stimulus dollarsAugust2011

Source: Florida Department of Transportation

Roads stimulus still in neutral 07/24/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 24, 2009 9:33pm]

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