Momentum is building for an economic-stimulus package that includes substantial funding for infrastructure. With the recession straining many states’ budgets, governors and state legislators on Dec. 1 weighed in with a call for the incoming Obama administration and new Congress to include up to $136 billion for “ready-to-go” projects in a stimulus plan expected to be unveiled early in January.

Rendell (L) leads governors’ push for funding.
Photo: AP/Wideworld
Rendell (L) leads governors’ push for funding.

Governors, led by Pennsylvania’s Edward Rendell (D), made their pitch personally to President-elect Barack Obama at a Dec. 2 meeting in Philadelphia. Obama told the governors that “this administration does not intend to delay in getting you the help that we need.” He has said a new stimulus measure would be his first order of business after he takes office.

Besides public-works funds, governors also are asking for other types of federal aid, including an extension for unemployment benefits, additional money for food stamps and assistance for people who lose medical coverage.

Infrastructure funding is “the most important part” of the plan, says Rendell, who chairs the National Governors Association this year. The focus is on about $136 billion in projects for which contracts can be let within 180 days.

Rendell estimates that “well over 70%” of the $136 billion would go for highways and other transportation work. “They are not small projects,” he says. “We’re not talking about potholes here or curbside repaving. We’re talking about major reconstruction.”

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials is compiling a new survey of highway projects that can move quickly. Early results, from 29 states, indicate there are 3,180 such projects, totaling $34.4 billion.

Rendell says nontransportation public-works spending would include water and sewer facilities, and levee improvements. He also wants to see some funding devoted to renewable energy.

Rendell supports attaching a “use it or lose it” provision to infrastructure stimulus aid. That language would require states to spend the public-works stimulus money quickly and not simply hold it in their transportation accounts, he says.

Critics argue that public-works spending takes too long to act as an effective economic stimulus. But North Carolina House Speaker Joe Hackney (D) says, “The states can move quickly to put this money on the ground.”

Rendell says many projects on the list already have cleared environmental approvals, and states can expedite bidding. “This is an emergency,” he says. “We can have a two-week bid requirement if we want.”