February 23, 2009 2:30 AM, EST

Obama Signs Stimulus Package Into Law

Construction Projects Already Under Way

By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the Feb. 23 print edition of Transport Topics.

President Obama signed a $787 billion economic stimulus package into law last week that included about $27.5 billion in highway funding, some of which already is being put to use.

Obama formally approved the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act during a Feb. 17 ceremony in Denver.

He said that the legislation was “remaking the American landscape with the largest new investment in our nation’s infrastructure since . . . the 1950s [and] because of this investment, nearly 400,000 men and women will go to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges.”

Despite the influx in funding, some highway advocates were not satisfied, notably Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s panel on surface transportation.

DeFazio said while he “supported the original objective to have a bill that was timely, targeted and temporary,” he was one of seven Democrats to vote against the bill because it became “a huge grab bag.”

In particular he objected to a series of tax cuts included in the legislation.

“The $326 billion in tax cuts won’t build bridges, educate our children or even fill in potholes,” DeFazio said.

Of the total package, $27.5 billion is dedicated to the Federal Highway Administration but with the caveat that while those funds could be spent on roads and bridges, they also could be directed to projects including rail construction or mass transit.

Edward Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads, said the “additional flexibility provided by this bill gives states the ability to direct the money to critical infrastructure projects regardless of mode . . . represents a huge victory for both passenger and freight rail.”

However, Tim Lynch, senior vice president of American Trucking Associations, said it was important to note where the funds were coming from, especially when looking ahead to the upcoming debate on the new highway bill.

“We have to keep in mind this is not Highway Trust Fund money, but from the general fund, and we’re going to use that as an argument to keep non-contributors out of the [highway] fund because they already got theirs,” he said.

Greg Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, told Transport Topics states were unlikely to redirect road and bridge money to other purposes because “the list of highway needed projects that are ready to go is so great.”

Besides the $27.5 billion, the package also created a new $1.5 billion program to fund large surface transportation projects.

The additional spending is a “bonus,” Lynch said, because it doesn’t deplete the Highway Trust Fund, but added it was “disappointing” the overall bill didn’t include more funding.

AAA President Robert Darbelnet said the added funds were “welcomed and necessary . . . [but] should be considered a down payment on a much bigger transportation investment.”

Stephen Sandherr, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America, said there was “no doubt the stimulus will have a positive impact for construction businesses and their workers across the country.”

An analysis by AGCA found that 900,000 jobs would be directly affected by stimulus funding and an additional 970,000 would be supported by those investments.

Some fleets also said they expected to see increased business as a result of the uptick in construction spending.

“We do expect we will get an opportunity to haul building and construction materials as well as energy-related equipment,” said Don Cochran, chief executive officer of Universal Truckload Services Inc., a Detroit-based truckload carrier that relies on flatbed trailers for 60% of its business.

On Feb. 18, the Missouri Department of Transportation said it had begun replacing the Osage River Bridge carrying State Route 17 near the city of Tuscumbia with funds from the legislation.

“We promised we would be ready to go to make the best use of every dollar we receive through the economic recovery act to create jobs and make our highways safer,” MoDOT Director Pete Rahn said in a statement. “We delivered on that promise and then some.”

The bridge project was one of four projects totaling $50.2 million MoDOT said it started the day after Obama signed the legislation.

In addition to the highway funding, the bill also included:

$9.3 billion for Amtrak and high-speed rail.

  $6.9 billion for the Federal Transit Administration.

  $400 million for transportation electrification, which can include anti-idle projects at truck stops.

  $300 million for grants to fleets to retrofit or replace older trucks to reduce diesel emissions.

  $520 million for border-crossing construction and Customs screening equipment.

  $142 million for the U.S. Coast Guard to alter bridges.

Senior Reporter Rip Watson contributed to this report.