Nov/Dec 2009

State News: August 2009


 



Shovel-ready or not?

A new Council of State Governments’ national report—“Shovel Ready or Not?
State Stimulus Successes on the Road to Recovery”—highlights efforts of states that
have distinguished themselves in some aspect of implementing the infrastructure
spending portion of the Recovery Act. The report is due out in January.
By Sean Slone
Federal investment in highway and bridge projects has been perhaps the most closely scrutinized portion of the $787 billion stimulus package approved by Congress this year. The Recovery Act set aside $27.5 billion for highway and bridge projects alone.
While states faced an Oct. 10 deadline for the first electronic reports on the receipt and use of those funds, the true impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 will likely be analyzed for months and years to come.
Still, before any numbers were tallied detailing the economic impact of all those “shovel-ready” projects that tied up traffic this summer, the significant and potentially long-term impact for state governments was already clear. State governments have changed procedures to get projects underway, instituted unprecedented transparency and accountability initiatives, and worked long hours to meet federal reporting requirements.
A Council of State Governments national report—“Shovel Ready or Not? State Stimulus Successes on the Road to Recovery”—
highlights efforts of states that have distinguished themselves in some aspect of implementing the infrastructure spending portion of the Recovery Act. It features interviews with state stimulus czars, state Department of Transportation officials and others on the front lines of Recovery Act implementation. Together they tell the story of why their states were successful in meeting important deadlines, reaching critical milestones, choosing projects wisely and using new technologies to track it all.
The full report will be released in January. Here is a preview of what state officials told CSG about implementing the Recovery Act.
 

The Need for Speed

The Obama administration announced in late June that all 50 states had obligated at least half their highway stimulus funds. Under one of the “use it or lose it” provisions of the Recovery Act, states had until June 30 to obligate the funds or risk losing half of what wasn’t obligated.
Maine secured 100 percent of its funds by the deadline. It was the first state to hit the 50 percent threshold way back on March 6.
“One of the things (Gov. John Baldacci) was adamant about was that we didn’t get into July and August and have all kinds of stimulus funds sitting around while the bureaucracy tried to figure out the best way to get it out the door,” said Ryan Low, commissioner of the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, who serves as the state’s stimulus czar. “So we spent a lot of time in those early months even before the bill was signed on Feb. 17 setting up a structure inside government to push things along as quickly as possible.”
The state established a system in transportation to streamline the processing; it set early meetings with a group that meets weekly that included people from the controller’s office, budget office and those who could push projects along, Low said.
“Given the short construction season that we have in Maine, we were automatically going to hit that June deadline because we can’t wait until September and October to start construction projects,” Low said. “Our season’s just not long enough to do that. That had as much to do with it as anything.”
But obligating the federal stimulus dollars was only part of the story. In early August, the chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, James Oberstar, sent letters to the governors of the three states that had used the most stimulus highway funding to that point. Wyoming ranked first on Oberstar’s list since it had used 76 percent of its $157.6 million at the time. Wyoming was among the first states to award contracts for all its stimulus-funded road projects.
Lynne Boomgaarden, director of the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments and the state’s stimulus czar, said the state’s legislature left managing the stimulus up to the governor, and required state agencies to get the governor’s approval to submit an application. The process was in place fairly quickly, she said.
“And because (the state Department of Transportation) was ready to do that, that process went very quickly and very smoothly, which let them go out with their respective bids and make their awards,” Boomgaarden said.
Ron Kisicki, management services manager with the Wyoming Department of Transportation, said the department developed a list of more than $400 million worth of projects that would be considered shovel-ready.
“So when the act was finally passed and signed, we were basically ready to put projects out to contract. … I think it was primarily a result of many months of analysis and planning ahead of time,” he said. “The other thing is we’ve got a smaller program as compared to a lot of states. We didn’t have any metropolitan areas 250,000 or above.”
New Hampshire, which in July had used 64 percent of its $129.4 million, also won praise from Oberstar. One procedural change at the state agency level that may have had an impact on greasing the wheels involved a simple piece of paper to green-light stimulus-funded projects. Stimulus director Bud Fitch, the state’s deputy attorney general, required every stimulus project to have a green cover sheet that signified it was a “Go.”
“What the green paper does is it says when you come in in the morning and your routine stack is there, if halfway down the pile is something with a green paper, pull that out, do it immediately, send it on to the next step, where normally it might not be gotten to for two or three days or sometimes even a week,” said Fitch. “It altered the priority assigned to things much more than it altered the steps followed to get them through.”
 

Focus of Stimulus Transportation Projects

With the transportation spending, the Recovery Act gave states an opportunity to address urgent needs such as the 26 percent of America’s bridges that are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, the one-third of America’s roads that are in poor or mediocre condition and the backlog in public transportation investment.
But an analysis in June by Smart Growth America, a coalition of organizations that fight urban sprawl, found that a majority of states failed to make as much progress as possible on pressing transportation needs.
By the standards set by the report, Iowa ranked high both in the percentage of stimulus highway funds committed to roads for repairs—93 percent—and the percentage of overall transportation stimulus dollars spent on public transportation and biking or walking trails—16.5 percent.
“We essentially just moved forward with our existing transportation plan. Those were ready-to-go projects,” said Iowa’s stimulus czar, Jon Murphy, director of state-federal relations. “There were some minor adjustments made to the plan but for the most part the $358 million that we were provided by the Recovery Act just accelerated our existing transportation plan.”
Dan Franklin, director of the Office of Policy and Legislative Services in the Iowa Department of Transportation, said the state has moved toward the preservation of roads as opposed to expansion and new capacity the past few years—that’s a good thing, according to Smart Growth America.
“We had a huge program here over the last decade where we did a significant amount of four-lane-ing (roads) in the state,” Franklin said. “And as those have wound down in the last couple of years, we’ve been rededicating stuff back to preservation.”
 

State Transparency and Accountability

Under the Recovery Act, state governments took on significant reporting requirements and used state of the art Web sites to communicate it to anyone willing to wade through the voluminous information.
A July study by Good Jobs First, an economic development research group, ranked states according to their Recovery Act Web sites. Maryland ranked number one for both its main Recovery Act Web site and its highway reporting site, both of which are part of StateStat, a performance measurement and management tool implemented by Gov. Martin O’Malley. Maryland is one of eight states with Recovery Act Web sites that use graphic displays based on interfaces developed by ESRI, a California-based geographic information systems firm.
Beth Blauer, Maryland StateStat director, said the state had been working with a GIS-based application at StateStat for some of its other transparency initiatives, particularly in regard to efforts to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay. So when it came to reporting on the Recovery Act, the state again turned to the California company, which was at the time looking to develop a tracking application.
“We tried to guess what we would have to be reporting,” said Blauer. “We sort of just started based on what we saw on USAspending.gov and some of the other transparency initiatives … and we created a template, which very luckily reflects the federal reporting template pretty much field for field.”
State agencies used that template to start reporting in the spring. Blauer said most states didn’t start reporting until later. “We were just very organized, we anticipated right, we did good research and it paid huge dividends for us,” she said.
“I think this is just the teaser of what’s to come,” she said. “I don’t think that the Obama administration is going to back off any of these transparency mandates that they’ve set on ARRA. … From all angles it looks like this is the direction that we’re going to be moving in for all spending, not just spending related to ARRA. … I see this as our transition into the next era of government accountability.”
Blauer said StateStat helped Maryland and could serve as a model for other states for reporting Recovery Act data.
 
—Sean Slone is a transportation policy analyst at the Council of State Governments.