Is Stimulus Money Being Spent Too Fast?

Some question whether "shovel-ready" projects are worth the speedy spending.

Oct. 19, 2009 — -- Could the wheels of government bureaucracy be grinding too quickly for once?

States, in particular, have been criticized for taking too long to use money from the government's $787 billion stimulus package. Yet, some wonder whether the emphasis on "shovel-ready" projects under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is putting pressure on federal, state and local officials to push forward on projects that either aren't ready for primetime or just aren't important enough to receive immediate funding.

Government officials overseeing the distribution of stimulus funds, of course, disagree.

Below, we take a look at some of the speedy spending and the arguments for and against it:

Broadband Access

What It Is: The government has allotted $7.2 billion of stimulus funding to the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to expand broadband services that would allow for more high-speed Internet access across the country. The deadline to apply for the first round of funding for broadband projects was in August.

Why It's Happening Too Fast: The Federal Communications Commission isn't due to debut its National Broadband Plan -- which will outline the agency's strategy for providing broadband access to everyone in the country -- until Feb. 17, 2010. The NTIA, meanwhile, earlier this month awarded grants to four states -- California, Indiana, North Carolina and Vermont -- to map existing broadband access.

That means those applying for the first round of broadband grants under the Recovery Act are doing so without access to the information being gathered now for the FCC report and the state maps.

"My question would be, what in the heck are they basing their projects on?" asked John Dunbar, who studies media and broadband issues at American University.

Why It's Not: Officials at the NTIA and RUS said that those who submitted applications for broadband access in August did have tools, including their own local geographical surveys, to gather information for their projects. Some states, they added, already do have their own broadband access maps.

The information provided by project applications could actually help the FCC in its efforts to create a national broadband map.

"One of the principal aims of the recovery act is to provide stimulus funding to jump-start the economy and that's just what these broadband stimulus funds are supposed to do -- deploy broadband to parts of country that are un-served and underserved, in order for the people in those areas to better participate in the global economy," an RUS official said.

Airport Improvements

What It Is: The stimulus package includes more than $1 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration's Airport Improvement Program (AIP), which provides grants to airports for "enhancing airport safety, capacity, security, and environmental concerns." Through a mathematical model, AIP projects are assigned a "National Priority Rating" of 1 to 100, with 100 being of the highest priority.

Why It's Happening Too Fast: An analysis by the Subsidyscope project of the Pew Charitable Trusts found that more than 60 projects approved for $273 million in stimulus funding by the FAA were low priority projects, with NPR scores below 62 -- the threshold set by the FAA for stimulus-funded projects.

Among the projects with lower NPRs were expanding or improving airport terminal buildings.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown told that how quickly a project could be completed was taken into account when the FAA was deciding which grants to award and that there likely were projects with high NPRs that were not awarded stimulus grants because they could not be completed within the amount of time specified by the stimulus rules.

"We're not judging whether these are good or bad but, in many cases, this raises questions about what the projects may be doing, especially if it's below the threshold," said Marcus C. Peacock, the project director for Subsidyscope.

Why It's Not: In addition to NPR scores and timing issues, Brown said the FAA also sought geographic diversity in awarding its grants, and also relied on other criteria.

The FAA has a history of awarding funding to projects below its NPR thresholds. Normally, the FAA considers projects with scores of 41 or above to be "consistent with FAA goals and objectives" but between 2005 and 2009, 13.5 percent of projects receiving federal funding had NPR scores below 41, according to the administration's Web site. (Among stimulus-funded projects, 22 had NPRs below 41, according to Subsidyscope data.)

In a statement on its site, the FAA said that "mathematical models will never be a replacement for human judgment."

Road Repairs

What It Is: The stimulus package includes more than $27 billion for investments in the country's highways and bridges, including road repairs.

Why It's Happening Too Fast: An analysis by USA Today last month found that 74 counties with the nation's worst roads -- including those in New York, Michigan and Texas -- received a relatively small amount of funding for road repairs: $1.9 billion.

"It's just not fair," one Michigan highway engineer told the newspaper.

"Some higher priority projects that would have taken longer to implement had to be overlooked in this particular situation because of the timing required by the (stimulus) bill," John Barton, assistant executive director for engineering operations at Texas Department of Transportation, told

Why It's Not: A Federal Highway Administration official said that in identifying bad roads, USA Today relied only on one metric -- the International Roughness Index, which essentially measures how bumpy a road is. The analysis did not take into account, the official said, whether a road is a structurally unsound.

"Urban areas may have (roads in) poor riding condition but they may not need to be fixed sooner than a road that is structurally unsound," the official said.

The 74 counties in question, the official added, are still getting more in funding than more than 1,000 other counties. Projects not included under the stimulus, she said, could still be eligible for other federal funding.

Even Barton isn't knocking the system.

"The Recovery Act is additional funding for transportation," he said. "It's not a replacement or substitute within traditional funding streams."

Jobs Come First?

Whether or not the projects funded by the stimulus are, in fact, of high priority may be of secondary importance, some say.

"The purpose of the stimulus bill is to get the money out there to create jobs and to get people working," said Jim Berard, a spokesman for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which has tracked the speed with which states have put their highway stimulus funds to work. Committee chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., has admonished several state governors for slow progress.

"The improvement of infrastructure is really a byproduct, a side benefit of (the stimulus)," Berard said. "So speed is of the essence."

The White House said Wednesday that thus far, roughly $2.2 billion in stimulus funds awarded to federal contractors has resulted in 30,383 jobs either being created or saved. States and municipalities are slated to report job totals for their stimulus spending later this month.