Online Extra: Where the Money Meets the Road: October/November 2009

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Highway with traffic

By Jaime Rall

The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act provided $787 billion for a wide variety of projects. States benefited the most from money for education, Medicaid and transportation. For most taxpayers, the transportation projects they pass by to and from work each day are probably the most visible sign of the stimulus program.
According to the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, stimulus funds for transportation have so far supported 22 million work hours and funded 5,279 highway and transit projects. To get a sense of where the money meets the asphalt, here is a sampling of notable transportation projects from around the country paid for with stimulus dollars:




In Alaska, which has the nation’s largest aviation system, 82 percent of communities are not served by roads and access by plane is one of the few viable transportation alternatives. As of Sept. 30, Alaska will receive more than $86 million in ARRA airport improvement grants, more than any state except California. Among Alaska’s stimulus-funded aviation projects is a new airport for Akiachak, an isolated Yup’ik Eskimo village. Planes provide this remote community with critical access to needed supplies and services, but the current runway is rutted, covered in loose gravel, and reportedly soft when wet. A $15 million grant will help build a new airport that is up to current design standards, as well as an airport access road. The project will also include lighting to increase airport safety and make more flights possible during marginal weather and lighting conditions.


To support the recovery act’s goal of stimulating the economy, states must prioritize projects in “economically distressed areas” for highway infrastructure funds. These areas are characterized by low per capita income, unemployment above the national average, or unemployment or economic adjustment problems. In June, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials reported that Arkansas—which ranked 48th in the nation for per capita income in 2007—had dedicated 84 percent of its funds to economically distressed areas. According to the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department, the state's $351 million in ARRA highway funds will support between 10,530 and 12,285 jobs.


California received more stimulus money for highway infrastructure than any other state, and is also building the biggest stimulus highway project in the nation so far: the $1.03 billion Interstate 405 Sepulveda Pass Widening Project in Los Angeles. This project is predicted to save more than 7 million vehicle hours of traffic delay annually, by adding 10 miles of high-occupancy vehicle lanes to one of the country’s most congested highways. The project has been on hold since 2001, but with the help of $190 million in stimulus funds, is now moving forward. This project will create an estimated 18,000 local construction jobs.


States must spend at least 3 percent of their stimulus highway funds on “enhancements” that expand transportation choices or add to a travel experience. These can include bicycle paths, sidewalks, ramps, restoration efforts and visitor centers. Louisiana has chosen to spend more than $11 million in ARRA funds on enhancements for the South Louisiana Submerged Roads Program. The program is restoring roads in five southern Louisiana parishes—including in the city of New Orleans—that were damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. The asphalt was weakened by being submerged in saltwater for up to 11 days, and heavy trucks removing debris after the floods made matters worse. As the damaged roads are repaired and rebuilt, stimulus funds will make them more usable—and beautiful—by adding sidewalks, bike lanes, trees and signs. 


Maine was the first state to select projects for 100 percent of its stimulus highway money—more than $130 million. The state’s largest highway project so far has been a $35.5 million rehabilitation of nearly 24 miles of northbound I-295 in an economically distressed area between Gardiner and Brunswick. This section of highway was built with concrete slabs in the early 1970s and was suffering from rapid deterioration. Crews worked seven days a week through one of the rainiest construction seasons on record to complete the full-closure phase of construction on Aug. 3, ahead of schedule. The Maine Department of Transportation expected the entire project to be complete on time in mid-October. The rehabilitation is predicted to last more than 20 years and was completely paid for by the stimulus money.

New Jersey

New Jersey, the nation’s most transit-intensive state, is investing $130 million of stimulus transit funds in the largest transit public works project in the nation: an $8.7 billion, two-track rail tunnel under the Hudson River. The new Trans-Hudson Express Tunnel will double rail access into Manhattan by 2017, accommodating about 90,000 riders during the morning rush. The groundbreaking was June 8, after 15 years of study and planning. The stimulus money and an additional $3 billion federal award provided the entire $8.7 billion for the project, and it was in hand before construction started. The project is expected to create 6,000 jobs per year through the construction phase, as well as 44,000 permanent jobs.


Not all recovery act highway projects involve resurfacing roads or repairing bridges. As of June 29, at least 26 states had put some of their highway funds toward “Intelligent Transportation Systems”, which are advanced technologies that improve the capacity and performance of existing infrastructure. Pennsylvania had dedicated the most stimulus money to these type of projects: $74 million for three Philadelphia projects and more than $8 million in other parts of the state. The largest project, bid at $21.7 million, will install CCTV cameras, dynamic message signs, travel time readers, incident detectors and vehicle detectors on more than 20 miles of highway in northeast Philadelphia. This project will help the Department of Transportation quickly identify accidents and provide critical information to travelers.

Jaime Rall tracks transportation issues for NCSL.