The time is at hand when the construction industry must stand up and make its case for infrastructure projects to be an important part of any economic stimulus plan. There will be stiff money competition from other industries ranging from steel to auto manufacturing, but few can match construction’s quick startup of projects already in the pipeline, its speedy ramp-up of employment in a highly mobile workforce and its resulting economic benefits.
There are grave doubts about the effectiveness of any stimulus package, so the scrutiny moving forward should be tough. Some economists say the tax-rebate checks early last year from the $152-billion Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 had virtually no effect on the economy. And it still is a mystery where Uncle Sam invested $2 trillion under the bailout packages late last year. But there is no doubt that quality public-works projects can pay economic and quality-of-life dividends for generations.
With President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration nearing, Congress will be under great pressure to jump-start the economy. Cities, states and public agencies need to have all details in place to make their projects viable, which includes enough justification to prove projects are not political pork.
While vast amounts of money will be spent on economic stimulus, it should be wasted. Not all construction projects will meet this close scrutiny. For example, consider Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere.” Funding for this $320-million project was a product of congressional “earmarks” inserted in 2005 by lawmakers drafting the last federal transportation bill. Widely ridiculed, the structure would have connected the town of Ketchikan (population 8,900) with its airport on the Island of Gravina (population 50). It eventually was killed, but the pork legacy lives on.
Today, others are resurrecting this approach for stimulus aid. The tiny town of Edwardsville, Ala., (population 194) has added 33 construction-related proposals to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ “ready-to-go” list of stimulus projects. The town is seeking $375 million, or nearly $2 million per person. Most of the projects relate to renewable energy, and there is a companion $32.1-million renewable-energy museum. That project is topped only by Las Vegas’ proposal for a $55-million “mob museum.”
If construction advocates are to have any credibility with Congress, the President and unhappy taxpayers, they must put forth only projects that are meaningful for the economy and job creation and can move in 90 days. The rest must be sent to the trash bin.