Brent Batten: Contrasting projects stimulate debate

BRENT BATTEN

With federal spending reportedly part of President Barack Obama’s new plan to revive the economy, now seems a good time to look at federal spending that was part of President Barack Obama’s old plan to revive the economy.

Two examples from here in Collier County stand as, if not polar opposites, at least starkly different examples, of how that money was used and how it benefited, or didn’t, the overall economy.

One project is the roughly $25 million awarded to the Florida Department of Transportation to add a two-lane span to the Jolley Bridge leading to Marco Island.

For years, the need to add lanes to what has always been a two-lane bridge has been apparent. An accident on the bridge or its approaches could snarl traffic coming and going. Even without an accident, traffic could back up in peak season. Hurricane evacuation presented a potential nightmare.

The FDOT had the bridge widening on its long-term needs list but until money from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus package, was available, there was no plan in place to pay for it and no timetable for construction.

Now, with the extra travel lanes open and finishing touches be put on the new span, travel to and from Marco Island is significantly improved. The bridge, which was going to have to be built someday using some form of taxpayer funding, is in place years earlier than it would have been otherwise.

It represents an improvement to the county’s infrastructure and better infrastructure is an ingredient in a better economy. Who knows when or if the bridge will ever be part of a major evacuation but if the need arises it is there.

It was built for less than it might have been if construction had come during a boom period, when the cost of labor and building materials would have been higher.

The ARRA web site recovery.gov states that the project created 35 jobs but that isn’t an accurate reflection of the hundreds of workers who drew pay, whether for weeks, months or the entire two-year project duration.

The Jolley Bridge was one of the shovel-ready projects used to sell the stimulus package when it was being debated in Congress.

Unfortunately, as President Obama himself admitted in a recent candid moment, there weren’t as many of those shovel-ready jobs out there as proponents of the stimulus originally claimed. Only $48 billion of the nearly $800 billion stimulus package is targeted toward transportation projects. Of that $48 billion, $27.5 billion is for roads, with the rest going to rail, aviation and ports.

Billions more were spent on things that did nothing to improve infrastructure or sustain jobs during an economic downturn.

One example is the $2 million grant originally reported to have gone to a Post Office box on Marco Island. It turns out the money wasn’t meant for Marco Island at all, The P.O. box was that of one of the owners of Haven Economic Development, a company that owns apartment complexes for low-income people in North Florida. The money was used to help pay rent for tenants of those buildings under the Section 8 housing program of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to a HUD spokesman.

In other words, money was taken from people who earned it, and given to people who didn’t to help them pay rent. Or, more likely in the case of the stimulus program, the government borrowed money that might otherwise have been borrowed by a business looking to expand or a consumer wishing to make a major purchase, and used the money to help an unproductive person pay rent.

At the risk of sounding callous toward those in the Section 8 program, how does that stimulate the economy?

Not all stimulus spending is created equal and while the president will reportedly put an emphasis on infrastructure improvements in his speech tonight, the past two years have shown that, as the president told a meeting of his Jobs Council in North Carolina in June, “Shovel ready was not as shovel ready as we thought.”

A Rasmussen poll conducted last month indicates almost two-thirds of Americans do not trust the government to put infrastructure money to good use.

Since the first round of stimulus hasn’t reduced unemployment or otherwise hastened economic recovery, can you blame them?

Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten

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