This week marks the one-year anniversary of the signing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the outlook on its success rate is, at best, mixed.
Here in the Mid-Atlantic, where many companies bank on federal work, some see the stimulus as a blessing. More than $1 billion in U.S. General Services Administration funds will go to projects in the Washington, D.C., area, including $162 million toward the $435-million U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters at the former St. Elizabeths campus.
Between December 2008 and December 2009, the District of Columbia saw a lower percentage of job losses [-3.5%] than any of the 50 states. And that could continue with more GSA work scheduled to be awarded this year. As Bill Guerin of GSA’s Recovery Act Program Management Office notes, many of the agency’s projects will provide jobs that last for years.
While that could be a lifeline for some in the vertical building sectors, many in the transportation sector are now left with little on the horizon. While the stimulus plan did manage to quickly funnel funds into state departments of transportation, many construction firm executives find themselves asking, “What now?” Although Congress has extended funding in keeping with SAFETEA-LU, it has not moved quickly on a new highway reauthorization bill.
The same debate is playing out across the country. A Jan. 13 White House report estimates that ARRA, which included nearly $130 billion in construction spending, added or saved 262,000 construction jobs through the end of last year. However, when the bill was signed on Feb. 17, 2009, the national construction unemployment rate was around 21% and today it is nearly 25%.
When ARRA was introduced, much of the justification centered on its potential to jumpstart the economy with a quick jolt of funding that would get people working and subsequently spending their paychecks. Although much of the funding for transportation and water infrastructure has been obligated, sectors like public buildings and power-related projects are just now seeing the bulk of funds flow into projects.
Some economists suggest that from the standpoint of pure economic theory, the stimulus didn’t go as planned. “The notion of the stimulus was to kick start the economy,” one economist said. “Everyone might have been better off now if more of that money had gone out earlier. It wasn’t supposed to be corporate welfare.”
At the same time, it is clear that the construction market would be in far worse shape without ARRA. As Associated General Contractors’ CEO Stephen E. Sandherr told ENR, “Did it create all the jobs everyone expected? No. Did it save jobs? Absolutely.”
While some in the Mid-Atlantic region may sustain themselves on a steady diet of federal building projects in the coming year, others are picking at scraps. With the government now in the position of buoying the industry, the best some contractors can hope for in the coming year is a second helping in the form of “Stimulus II.”