Shovel Ready: Nation's Capital Finds Winter Weather Boon and Boondoggle

Do snowstorms stimulate or stifle the recession-weary U.S. economy?

ByABC News
February 5, 2010, 1:20 PM

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2010— -- In a town accustomed to starting new government programs to create jobs and spark economic activity, some Washington, D.C., area businesses are hailing the wintry mess of the past four days as a "shovel-ready" economic stimulus project in the making.

But experts say this month's storms, with their "historic'" proportions, are ultimately a net negative for taxpayers, who foot the bill for snow cleanup and the lost productivity of more than 230,000 idle federal employees. Official Washington was shut down for a third straight snow day -- unprecedented in recent times.

Office of Personnel Management chief John Berry, who decides when to close the federal government, has said each snow day costs taxpayers an estimated $100 million in work government employees don't do.

Federal workers are still paid for the unanticipated days off due to weather. Other government shutdowns – such as the six-day closure in November 1995 during a budget dispute in Congress – furloughed non-essential workers, thereby saving taxpayers money.

Scott Bernhardt, chief operating officer of Planalytics, a company that studies the economic impact of storms, told ABC News the unrelenting snow and ice that's hit the mid-Atlantic this year is especially bad news for taxpayers worried about government deficits and the overall health of the U.S. economy in 2010.

"Many of our governments have all blown their snow removal budgets already; I don't know where this money is going to come from," he said.

Virginia has exhausted its $79 million in snow removal funds for the season -- plus a $25 million emergency reserve. Maryland's $26 million snow budget dried up after the December snowstorms and has now spent nearly double that amount on storm cleanup.

In the District of Columbia, where the average annual snowfall is 15 inches, officials say they've long since used up the $6.2 million slated for snow removal this season. D.C. has had over 45 inches of snow this winter, and 18 inches more could be on the ground by Wednesday night.

The District government estimates the average cost of a fully-deployed snow removal operation at over $110,000 per shift.

Wednesday's storm "is normally a pretty big snow for Washington," said D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. "But we've already had two more of these in the past week and a half. It's causing major complications."