Sucker punched

May 2, 2017

As it turns out, ARRA did very little for roads and bridges

When a Sharpie gives you a black eye it never goes away. The embarrassment that comes with it is everlasting.

Barack Obama’s poster child during his 100 days in office was the $831 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The goal was to put people to work immediately and to get the country moving again. Obama dressed up the road and bridge industry for the occasion. It was made to look good—the Prom King of this first dance. In reality, we all know the industry received a sliver of this honeymoon cake—$27.5 billion to be exact.

A new analysis socks this poster with a right-hook scribble to the eye. Bill Dupor is an assistant vice president and economist in the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. In late April he released a report titled, “So Why Didn’t the 2009 Recovery Act Improve the Nation’s Highways and Bridges?” According to Dupor, the Recovery Act grants equaled 76% of (pre-act) 2008 federal-aid highway dollars and also equaled 44% of 2008 highway capital improvements by states from all sources. In 2008, 26.9% of the nation’s bridges were classified as either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Three years later, the percentage stood nearly unchanged at 25.4%.

States used ARRA dollars as a replacement to their own funding. Local contributions were pulled from road and bridge projects and used in other unrelated areas. Fifteen states even found a way to cut their total highway capital spending between 2008 and 2010. For example, the state of Georgia spent $109 less per capita in 2010 than it did in 2008. Texas and Maryland spent $98 and $73 less per capita, respectively. All three states turned around and spent more on government administration plus education spending, with Texas leading the trio at $288 more per capita. Indiana might have been the worst offender of all. The state spent $28 less per capita over the three-year period while throwing a whopping $559 more per capita on government administration plus education spending. Shovel-ready jobs? More like white-collar ready.

Dupor then adds a mocking moustache to what Obama thought was a picture-perfect move when jobs are dissected. The number of highway, bridge and street construction workers dropped from 327,000 in 2008 to 291,000 in 2009. In the three years that followed, the number of workers stayed around the 2009 mark.

I always felt ARRA was a disappointment for what it did—or rather, did not do—for the road and bridge market, but the latest research drops that sentiment to complete failure depths. The embarrassment will never come off.

About The Author: Wilson is editorial director of Roads & Bridges.

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