Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Reviewing the Recovery Act

Infrastructure Watch has been following the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) since it was enacted. While infrastructure accounted for a relatively small amount of the total supplementary appropriations provided by ARRA, tens of billions of dollars is noteworthy in any industry. Much of the money that went to infrastructure has been spent and ARRA will begin a slow wind-down from the perspective of infrastructure. It seems like a good time for a review of the program and it effects so far.


ARRA committed only a fraction of its supplementary appropriations to infrastructure. Even so, the $62 billion appropriated to transportation and water infrastructure was significant considering that federal spending in this area had been declining. In 2009, this resulted in a $6 billion increase in federal infrastructure spending, of which $4 billion was directly from ARRA.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that 90 percent of these funds will be spent by 2013. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) had reported that 90 percent of the highway funds had been obligated by February 2010 and about a quarter of that had been paid out to state transportation programs. The clean water and drinking water state revolving fund (SRF) programs had drawn almost 80 percent of the funds by June 2011.

The author and others working in these industries are already looking for what projects or business lines might have the potential to bring in revenues as the ARRA well runs dry in a few years. The prospects aren’t entirely gloomy. Generally, the federal government accounts for only 25 percent of the spending on transportation and water infrastructure. The rest comes almost entirely from state and local governments.

Though federal funding is a minority of the investment in infrastructure, it is a significant portion of the capital investment, with relatively little going to operations and maintenance. This trend continued with ARRA. Smart Growth America criticized ARRA because to much went the construction of new transportation assets and too little to repairing existing infrastructure. They thought the extra appropriation would have been better spent and had a greater economic stimulus if more of it had been spent on the repair of existing infrastructure.

Maintenance of Effort
Though states are already a significant contributor to spending on transportation efforts, ARRA required states to continue funding transportation at the level they would have without the extra funding. Congress wanted to increase spending on transportation infrastructure, not give states a way to shift money to other areas.

The requirement has proven problematic. States are facing losses of revenue that may have forced them to cut transportation spending anyway. In addition, ARRA didn’t require to report what there level of effort would be until several months after they began to use the funds. States may not have, strictly speaking, circumvented the maintenance of effort requirement, but it has become difficult to say they have continued funding as they would have anyway.

ARRA recipients reported more than 580,000 full time equivalent (FTE) jobs in he last quarter of 2010. The way jobs are reported by recipients makes it difficult to determine the exact impact of ARRA on jobs.

ARRA recipients report work-hours that were paid for out of the ARRA funding. In the case of an infrastructure project, these work hours might involve construction trades, construction management, engineering design and oversight, and other services (legal, environmental, and more). The nature of these jobs means that the people may be working part-time on ARRA projects while working part-time on other projects, or temporarily work full time on an ARRA project. It is easy to add up the hours and calculate an FTE. It is difficult to know if any of these jobs were created ARRA, or if they might have ended except of ARRA, or might not have been affected.

This type of reporting has a built-in decline as ARRA money is spent down and projects end. Reported ARRA-related jobs is already declining in the SRF programs. ARRA-related jobs reported from SRF programs peaked in the Spring of 2010 and have declined since. Some foresaw a post-stimulus jobs drop even as it was just getting off the ground.

The author is an example these features of jobs reporting, ARRA work having accounted of about a quarter of an FTE in relation to him over the last 19 months. It’s impossible to say what, if any, other work the author may have done if not involved in ARRA projects; he’s glad to have good projects from wherever they come. When he transfers his effort to other work, hopefully, over the next year or so, his hours reported for ARRA will decline and end.

In addition, only some of the ARRA-funded programs are required to report jobs. Those that report jobs only have to trace them so far, to primary contractors and their subcontracts. It is a practical impossibility to count the jobs created or retained by such a program.

Even so, CBO made a go at estimating it. They estimate that ARRA increased the number of people employed by between 1.3 million and 3.5 million in the last quarter of 2010.

In the years before ARRA, construction costs had been rising more rapidly that prices the rest of the economy. Bucking that trend, GAO reported that many ARRA-funded projects were receiving bids that were lower than expected. The author has heard from water utilities and state revolving fund programs that a similar trend is occurring in drinking water and wastewater projects.

The thought is that the recession has made the environment very competitive and more bidders are going after each job. In response, contractors are taking minimal profits in order to get projects and stay afloat until the economy recovers. The Associate General Contractors of America has even suggested that contractors have bid projects at less than cost for that purpose.

This drop in bid prices is a reflection of the economic environment, not a response to ARRA. The touted “bid savings” that have ostensibly allowed the ARRA dollars to stretch farther have provide the same benefit to all the other money spent on construction.

CBO estimates that ARRA increased the gross domestic products (GDP) by between 1.1 percent and 3.5 percent in the last quarter of 2010.

CBO estimates that the ARRA will increase budget deficits by $821 billion between 2009 and 2019. They estimated 70 percent of that, approximately $575 billion, was realized by the end of September 2010.

The following references were used in the preparation of this review of ARRA.

Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Estimated Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on Employment and Economic Output from October 2010 Through December 2010. Washington, DC: CBO, 2011.

-----. Public Spending on Transportation and Water Infrastructure. Washington, DC: CBO, 2011.

Cooper, M. Companies pretty up prices to win stimulus projects. New York Times. March 28, 2009.

Farley, R., & Grabell, M. ProPublica and PolitiFact test Obama claims on stimulus. ProPublica. Nov. 10, 2010.

Fields, G. Job cuts loom as stimulus fades. Wall Street Journal. Dec. 1, 2009.

Government Accountability Office (GAO). Recovery Act: Funding Uses for Transportation Infrastructure Projects, but Some Requirements Proved Challenging. Washington, DC: GAO, 2011.

-----. Recovery Act: Funds Supported Many Water Projects, and Federal and State Monitoring Shows Few Compliance Problems. Washington, DC: GAO, 2011.

-----. Recovery Act: One Year Later, States’ and Localities’ Uses of Funds and Opportunities to Strengthen Accountability. Washington, DC: GAO, 2010.

Smart Growth America. Recent Lessons from the Stimulus: Transportation Funding and Jobs Creation. Washington, DC: Smart Growth America, 2011.

The following references are offered for those interested in additional information on ARRA.

Infrastructure Watch (blog). Coverage of infrastructure economic stimulus. May 14, 2009.

-----. Coverage of infrastructure in economic stimulus. Apr. 14, 2009.

-----. Government Accountability Office watches Recovery Act implementation. August 23, 2010.

-----. Infrastructure & recovery news. Oct. 8, 2010.

-----. Infrastructure & stimulus news. June 17, 2010.

-----. Infrastructure economic stimulus in the news. July 1, 2009.

-----. Infrastructure stimulus. Jan. 27, 2011.

-----. Recovery Act and infrastructure in the news. Jan. 26, 2010.

-----. Recovery Act and infrastructure in the news & elsewhere. Aug. 1, 2009.

-----. Recovery Act and infrastructure news. May, 11, 2010.

-----. Recovery & stimulus news. Mar. 25, 2011.

-----. Show me the money: Stimulus & infrastructure news. July 7, 2010.

-----. Summary of transportation stimulus oversight findings. Sept. 27, 2009.

-----. USDOT redirects high-speed rail stimulus away from slow states. Dec. 21, 2010.

McNamar, T. Profiles from the recession. Blueprint America (blog). Sept. 15, 2010.

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