Stimulating Projects In Maryland

More Than $600 Million In Federal Assistance Is Resurfacing Roads, Preserving Jobs In State

August 27, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,

The more than $600 million in federal money allocated to Maryland transportation projects, which began trickling into the state's economy this spring, is now flowing steadily - resurfacing roads, upgrading transit facilities and boosting demand for contractors from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore.

Although many question the stimulus program's impact - in a recent Gallup poll, 57 percent of those surveyed said it was not working - in the short term there is little doubt that the Obama administration's effort is creating and preserving construction jobs in Maryland.

Without the federal stimulus money that is financing road resurfacing projects on the Eastern Shore, David C. Bramble says, his paving company would have no work.

"The people I work with would be in trouble. We'd all be in the unemployment line," said Bramble, president of Chestertown-based David A. Bramble Inc.

Work has started on 50 highway projects with a price tag of more than $168 million across the state, and roughly the same amount is in the pipeline. The pace of the work is increasing; 20 road projects began in July, after nine each in May and June. On the transit side, projects worth $33 million have started and almost $100 million in work has been given the green light.

The heaviest spending has been on road resurfacing. Most have been modest projects of $5 million or less, but Baltimore received $11 million for a much-needed resurfacing of Northern Parkway from Falls Road to Park Heights Avenue.

Transit projects have ranged from rebuilding the crumbling platform of the Laurel MARC station - a $2.1 million job that was used as a backdrop for a visit by Vice President Joe Biden - to the purchase of hybrid buses.

Maryland's acting transportation secretary, Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, is pleased with the progress. "The good news about this is, we were able to put these projects back on the street quickly. I think we met our goals."

Some contractors complain that the federal money is simply keeping the industry on life support while the state diverts transportation money to other purposes. And questions remain about what will happen when the money runs out next year.

Maryland economist Anirban Basu, chief executive of Sage Policy Group, warns of a possible "double-dip recession" in 2011 and 2012 if the stimulus money expires before private-sector demand revives.

For now, however, some contractors are relieved that the funding is keeping the bulldozers running at a time when state and federal transportation funds are scarce because of falling revenue.

According to the Maryland Department of Transportation, stimulus money to the state is expected to support as many as 17,000 jobs.

About 100 of those jobs are with P. Flanigan & Sons and its subcontractors, according to company President Pierce Flanigan IV. He said the stimulus program is financing the Baltimore company's $4.6 million contract to resurface Interstate 83 just south of the Pennsylvania line as well as two repaving jobs at BWI Marshall Airport - one of them a $36 million giant that is partly funded through the federal program.

"They're a significant part of our construction program for this year. There's no doubt it's preserving jobs," Flanigan said. "In terms of employment, we're at the same point we were last year."

Heavily Democratic Maryland was one of the first states to seek federal dollars when they became available after President Barack Obama won passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February. In March, it became the first state to get a project started - repaving a stretch of New Hampshire Avenue in Montgomery County - at a time when some governors were balking at accepting federal funds.

That $2.1 million job, according to the state Transportation Department, is 30 percent complete. A handful of resurfacing and guardrail projects in Western Maryland have been finished, and a half-dozen jobs on the Eastern Shore (including several of Bramble's contracts) are more than half done.

Christopher Summers, president of the conservative Maryland Public Policy Institute, said the federal stimulus money, which he opposes as "welfare to the states," will at least let the state catch up on much-needed road repairs.

But he doubts that the spending will have much impact on the recession. "I don't think it's going to create new jobs per se."

State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen said stimulus money has been focused on road resurfacing because such projects took the biggest hit when Maryland deferred about $2 billion in work last year as a result of plunging revenues. Little stimulus money is going to bridge rehabilitation because the state gave those projects priority when making its cuts, he said.

Swaim-Staley said the state's transportation program is in good shape through fiscal year 2010, which ends June 30. "Once we get into fiscal year 2011, we're going to be back where we were."

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