State and local government and construction industry officials are pitching hard for an economicstimulus package that would include billions for public works. They are hoping, but are not certain, that Congress will act in a post-election session.
A long lineup of infrastructure advocates found a sympathetic audience at an Oct. 29 House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on the topic. Leaders of that panel helped to get about $30 billion for roads, transit and other public works included in a $61-billion stimulus bill that the House passed on Sept. 26. But a similar measure was blocked in the Senate, when its proponents lost a procedural vote.
Worries about the economy still may prompt Congress to do something to put more people to work. The earlier House and Senate bills could be starting points. The House committee’s chairman, James Oberstar (D-Minn.), says his panel’s staff will draft “elements of a bill” that would be considered after the House comes back into session on Nov. 17.
“I hope there’s something before the end of the year,” says Jack Basso, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ director of management and business development. But he adds, “I just don’t know.”
One positive sign was Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s Oct. 20 statement that “consideration of a fiscal package by the Congress at this juncture seems appropriate.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) supports stimulus legislation, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) backed the bill that made it to the floor of that chamber.
How large could the package be? “I’ve heard anywhere between $100 billion and $150 billion as the number,” says Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors’ highway and transportation division. That would not all be for public work. States want other direct federal aid. An unemployment-insurance extension also has support.
New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) says he supports a quick stimulus plan of $250 billion to $300 billion, but he did not specify the amount for infrastructure. The U.S. Conference of Mayors is proposing a “Main Street stimulus,” with $90 billion for infrastructure. That would include $32 billion for highways and nearly $19 billion for water and wastewater facilities. The American Society of Civil Engineers recommends including $38.5 billion for public works in a new stimulus, says Andrew Hermann, senior partner with Hardesty & Hanover LLP.
Critics say public works take too long to create jobs. An AASHTO survey found more than 3,000 projects totaling about $18 billion for which contracts could be awarded in 90 days. “The spend out and job creation [from those projects] would be much faster than for the regular federal transportation improvement programs,” says William Buechner, an American Road and Transportation Builders Association vice president.