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Obama's New Deal is on a smaller scale

Its focus on smaller, shovel-ready projects precludes a grander vision.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 12, 2009

Crested Butte, Colo., is set to receive millions of federal dollars to ‘weatherize’ buildings – like this 100-year-old mining shack – to improve energy efficiency.

Courtesy of the Office for Energy Efficiency


Minutes after President Obama signed the $787 billion stimulus package on Feb. 17, grizzled hard hats started banging on a new bridge over the Osage River outside Tuscumbia, Mo., an $8.5 million project that will employ 45 workers for two years.

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In Clinton, Mont., Kathryn Dougherty calls the $600,000 her town will receive to fix broken water pipes a “miracle.”

Mr. Obama’s recovery act has been hailed as a new New Deal to transform America. But there will be no Grand Coulee Dam or Golden Gate Bridge. Instead, there are thousands of small shovel-ready projects designed to bring transformation quickly – not through projects on an awesome scale, but rather in the mundane rumble of jackhammers in countless communities.

To critics, this is money wasted: The outlay of billions of dollars without deeper strategic planning about how the projects could be knitted together into some greater rebuilding of America. To others, however, the pressing need to save jobs now makes such delay impossible.

“What you need to do is get the money in people’s hands quickly, and that really precludes taking the visionary approach and looking at big projects,” says Jim Berard, communications director for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “We found it’s better and quicker to do the small projects that are just as necessary ... that aren’t sexy or postcard material but are just as needed.”

Construction gets $135 billion

In all, some $135 billion of the stimulus package is labeled for construction projects, though some of that total is included in other parts of the bill, such as education. The actual figure devoted solely to infrastructure is $86 billion, and states have to assign at least 50 percent of their share to shovel-ready projects – those that are ready to go within 120 days. Otherwise, they risk losing their funds.

About 5,000 highway projects are being planned, the equivalent of 1-1/2 for each county in the United States. Tens of thousands of smaller projects are also in the works, including “weatherization” incentives to improve energy efficiency in low-income families’ houses and new roofs for urban schools.

The federal spigot opened last Tuesday, when Obama proclaimed “shovels are already in the ground” as he released $27 billion for paving jobs and bridge makeovers.

The concern is that the stimulus amounts to “a grab bag of pet projects” unlikely to spur either an economic or physical transformation, says Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation in San Francisco.