Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Shovels in the ground: Stimulus at work

Thanks to federal stimulus funds, Rhode Island's pockmarked Route 138 in Tiverton is getting repaved. The state's 97,000 food stamp recipients are getting more money. And some 2,000 local youths will have summer jobs.

The tiny Ocean State has already started spending part of its $1.1 billion share of the $787 billion recovery program. It was one of the first states to put more money in the pockets of the jobless, pumping an additional $1 million a month into the local economy by increasing weekly unemployment benefits by $25. And it is moving quickly to get $137 million in infrastructure projects up and running.

"Rhode Island has moved aggressively in participating in the Recovery Act, especially in those programs that help those most in need," said Gov. Donald Carcieri. "Transportation projects have an immediate impact on jobs and we are well ahead of schedule to use the available stimulus dollars."

State officials around the nation are scrambling to access the $499 billion the stimulus program has allocated for economic recovery efforts. So far, the federal government has made available $75 billion, and $14.5 billion has been spent, mainly for Medicaid payments.

Some money, such as assistance for the needy and the unemployed, has been easier to access. But the bulk of the funding must wait for the federal government to issue regulations or for states to determine how to use the money and apply for it.
0:00 /4:23Bill Clinton on stimulus is looking at the national recession -- and recovery -- through the lens of one state: Rhode Island. In January, we detailed the impact of the economic meltdown on the state and its residents. This article kicks off a series that will chronicle how Rhode Island spends its stimulus money.
Repaving already underway

Rhode Island's Department of Transportation has already authorized 30 of the 54 projects to be funded by the stimulus program, well ahead of the June deadline to commit 50% of the money. And it has sped up the timetable for awarding contracts, shaving two weeks or more off the typical 120-day process.

"By the time the bill was passed and the president signed it, we were ready to go," said Michael Lewis, director of the state's transportation department.

The state has awarded eight contracts worth a total of $8.9 billion so far. In addition to the Route 138 repaving, they include landscaping Route 1's median in South Kingstown, improving drainage statewide and constructing a seawall along the shoreline of the Seekonk River in East Providence.

The projects will spur the creation of 1,500 jobs and employ another 3,500 people to support those jobs, Lewis said. The wide range of upgrades -- from signage to sidewalk repair -- will provide opportunities for many types of contractors.

"That's a big shot in the arm for the construction industry, which has suffered considerably," Lewis said.

The need for jobs in Rhode Island is evident. Its 10.5% unemployment rate ranks it sixth in the nation. When the transportation department recently announced it was hiring 89 workers to help manage the stimulus program, more than 1,200 people applied.

The department expects to commit all the stimulus funds by July. Much of the construction work will be completed by year-end, though some will carry over to 2010.
Other money flowing in

State agencies are also working to implement other stimulus programs in coming months.

For instance, the state Department of Labor and Training is scheduled to announce later this week a summer jobs program for disadvantaged youths using $4 million in stimulus funds. Some 2,000 youths, ages 14 to 24, are expected to participate.

The money is part of $17.2 million the state is receiving in workforce training grants, with the other funds slated for job training and career services for the unemployed. The youth program is the first to get off the ground.

Meanwhile, arts organizations have until Friday to submit applications to obtain a piece of the $291,500 in stimulus funding for preserving jobs in the field. Groups can apply to the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts for grants of either $12,500 or $25,000, which should be awarded in July.

Also in July, the Rhode Island Airport Corporation expects to award contracts for $6.2 million to reconstruct, mark and light a taxiway at the Quonset airport and a runway at Newport airport. The initiatives are expected to employ 150 people.
Much more to go

Like other states, Rhode Island has yet to receive the majority of its stimulus funding. Among the money still to come is more than $200 million for various education programs and $20.5 million for weatherization.

State agencies are working on securing more funds. The Department of Education, for instance, is meeting this week with local school districts to discuss the $83 million Rhode Island should receive in funding for disadvantaged and special needs children. And officials are working on grant proposals to obtain $55 million in energy-related funding.

"A lot of this is still coming down from Washington," said Amy Kempe, the governor's spokeswoman. "Some of the money is coming down quickly. Other money will take a little bit longer."

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