'GMA' Investigation: Stimulus Waste or Future Investment?

A Montana border town that sees 1-2 cars a day gets $15M from stimulus funds.

May 15, 2009— -- Few places in America are more desolate than Whitetail, Mont., a place where the roads are more likely to be mowed than paved. A border post with Canada located there sees an average of less than two passenger cars per day and only two to three trucks a month, according to the Bureau of Transportation statistics.

But one project in this tiny outpost is about to get a big-city upgrade.

The building that houses the border patrol is receiving $15 million from federal stimulus funds. And it's not just Whitetail. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) is getting $420 million in stimulus funds to upgrade small border crossings, almost all of them along the Canadian border. Many of them don't have much more traffic than the border post at Whitetail.

CBP officials say the money is needed to improve security on the border with Canada, but the projects are viewed with suspicion along overcrowded border crossings on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In Laredo, Texas, more than 20,000 vehicles cross across the U.S.-Mexico border every day, but the city thus far hasn't been promised any money from the $787 billion stimulus that was signed into law almost three months ago.

"When you're seeing millions of dollars being invested when you're only crossing two or three cars, that's insane," fumed Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas.

Stimulus Waste?

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., boasted on his Web site that five of the tiny border crossings between his state and Canada will get a total of about $77 million.

Asked by ABC News why tens of millions of dollars are being spent on border crossings that are barely used, the senator responded: "Well, first of all, we're post 9-11 and border security is critically important. Southern borders are important, it gets all the attention. We've got 545 miles of border in Montana with Canada and these roads have to be secure. And one of the ways you secure them is you make an investment."

"These ports are 30 years old, some of them are 45 years old, some of them have asbestos problems," the senator said. "We have to for economic reasons and for security reasons make an investment in that infrastructure and it's long overdue."

Tester admitted that on some days, his area sees no cross-border traffic. But the senator known for his frugality -- he has boasted he spends $10 on haircuts, including tip -- says security and commerce are the key factors behind the investments.

"It's a 545-mile border. All it takes is one car with terrorists in them, and it can raise a whole lot of problems in this country," he said. "I'm a farmer, I'm not an expert in border security, but if they tell me they need to have this facility to secure the border, I say right on."

The five border posts in Montana that are getting money are "antiquated," Tester said. Improving them will not only increase security but also commerce, in his view.

"This is rural America…it's God's people...these are great people and if you don't live there, who cares? But if a bridge gets stopped in NYC, people get pretty excited about it. If you get a border crossing that is either shut down or boarded up, that commerce isn't going to happen anymore. And quite frankly, I think there's a lot of opportunity for commerce. We need to maximize the opportunity at this time and that's what the border patrol folks have decided to do and I support it," he argued.

The CBP believes what Tester says about security is correct.

Jayson P. Ahern, acting commissioner of the agency, says a study two years ago found that border crossings on the United States' northern points of entry had to be upgraded and modernized, at a cost of about $5 billion.

"When you take a look at a place like Montana, most of those ports were 50-plus years old," Ahern said. "I think it's important to realize that we're only as strong as our weakest links."

"Certainly as we've seen with some of the individuals of concern that have tried to come into this country, they might try to come through our weakest links," he added.

But what does he say about places like Laredo, which are not getting similar funding?

"I think you don't just compare as far as solely the volume and the money it takes, or compare against a place like Laredo, that actually has four fairly modern ports," Ahern told ABC News. "From my perspective, looking at the national picture and what our needs are nationally, we've gone and followed our list of priorities, and certainly we'll get to the [Laredo] mayor's list as we move forward."

Ahern had no estimate of how many jobs the northern border project would create, but said the $420 million CBP is spending to upgrade its border posts is only the first installment in a multi-year project.

Where's the Stimulus Money?

President Obama promised hefty investment in infrastructure projects around the country from the $787 million stimulus package that was signed 77 days ago.

The administration claims that 150,000 jobs have been created or saved thus far, a number that was first uttered by the president during his 100-day press conference. The administration says that within the next 100 days, another 600,000 jobs will be created or saved as more funding trickles down to states and localities.

But so far, just 6 percent of the money has been spent, and the actual number of created or saved jobs that must be reported to Congress under the legislation will not come until October 2009.

The federal government has promised $88 billion in funding, but has spent only a little more than a quarter of it -- $28.5 billion, mostly on medical assistance programs.

Vice President Joe Biden's spokesman told ABC News that one of the reasons why the stimulus money isn't being spent faster is because they are taking great care with project approval.

Today, the vice president will be in Los Angeles to tout the benefits of the stimulus program, which his quarterly report says has funded more than 3,000 transportation construction projects around the United States.

Whitetail may not have seen some of those dollars yet, but Montana's border posts won't be antiquated for long. In those areas, $15 million goes a long way.

ABC News' Huma Khan and Sheila Evans contributed to this report.

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