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AP Impact: Road projects don't help unemployment

By Matt Apuzzo And Brett J. Blackledge

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 11 2010 10:25 a.m. MST

Construction contractors like Zimmerle would seem to be in line to benefit from the stimulus spending. But money for road construction offers little relief to most contractors who don't work on transportation projects, a niche that requires expensive, heavy equipment that most residential and commercial builders don't own. Residential and commercial building make up the bulk of the nation's construction industry.

"The problem we're seeing is, unfortunately, when they put those projects out to bid, there are only a handful of companies able to compete for it," Zimmerle said.

The Obama administration has argued that it's unfair to count construction jobs in any one county because workers travel between counties for jobs. So, the AP looked at a much larger universe: The more than 700 counties that got the most stimulus money per capita for road construction, and the more than 700 counties that received no money at all.

For its analysis, the AP reviewed Transportation Department data on more than $21 billion in stimulus projects in every state and Washington, D.C., and the Labor Department's monthly unemployment data. Working with economists and statisticians, the AP performed statistical tests to gauge the effect of transportation spending on employment activity.

There was no difference in unemployment trends between the group of counties that received the most stimulus money and the group that received none, the analysis found.

Despite the disconnect, Congress is moving quickly to give Obama the road money he requested. The Senate will soon consider a proposal that would direct nearly $28 billion more on roads and bridges, programs that are popular with politicians, lobbyists and voters. The overall price tag on the bill, which also would pay for water projects, school repairs and jobs for teachers, firefighters and police officers, would be $75 billion.

"We have a ton of need for repairing our national infrastructure and a ton of unemployed workers to do it. Marrying those two concepts strikes me as good stimulus and good policy," White House economic adviser Jared Bernstein said. "When you invest in this kind of infrastructure, you're creating good jobs for people who need them."

Highway projects have been the public face of the president's recovery efforts, providing the backdrop for news conferences with workers who owe their paychecks to the stimulus. But those anecdotes have not added up to a national trend and have not markedly improved the country's broad employment picture.

The stimulus has produced jobs. A growing body of economic evidence suggests that government programs, including a $700 billion bank bailout program and the $787 billion stimulus, have helped ease the recession. A Rutgers University study on Friday, for instance, found that all stimulus efforts have slowed the rise in unemployment in many states.

But the 400-page stimulus law contains so many provisions — tax cuts, unemployment benefits, food stamps, state aid, military spending — economists agree that it's nearly impossible to determine what worked best and replicate it. It's also impossible to quantify exactly what effect the stimulus has had on job creation, although Obama points to estimates that credit the recovery program for creating or saving 1.6 million jobs.

Politically, singling out transportation for another round of spending is an easier sell than many of the other programs in the stimulus. The money can be spent quickly and provides a tangible payoff. Even some Republicans who have criticized the stimulus have said they want more transportation spending.

Spending money on roads also ripples through the economy better than other spending because it improves the nation's infrastructure, said Bernstein, the White House economist.

But that's a policy argument, not a stimulus argument, said Daniel Seiver, an economist at San Diego State University who reviewed AP's analysis.

"Infrastructure spending does have a long-term payoff, but in terms of an immediate impact on construction jobs it doesn't seem to be showing up," Seiver said. "A program like this may be justified but it's not going to have an immediate effect of putting people back to work."

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