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Rural bridges first in line for stimulus funds
CUMBERLAND, Va. | On an average day, 20 cars rumble over the tiny Rock Creek Bridge and onto the gravel road in this rural county west of Richmond.
The Battery Hill Lane bridge in far southern Nelson County gets about 70.
Both are scheduled to be repaired later this year with some of the first payouts under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act - President Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan to get the economy moving by creating jobs, including updating bridges and other infrastructure.
The Virginia Department of Transportation plans to spend $28.2 million in recovery funds repairing the Rock Creek and Battery Hill Lane bridges, along with 61 other small and rural bridges throughout the state that get an average of about 1,200 cars per day.
VDOT officials say their top priority in choosing projects was how quickly they could get started. Those selected don't require personal property transfers or environmental approvals that can slow down larger projects that might have had a larger impact on traffic.
"The stimulus package was meant to get the economy moving quickly," said VDOT spokesman Jeff Caldwell. "We're trying very hard to select projects to be built that are 'shovel-ready' and could move forward."
Mr. Obama established the shovel-ready requirement, saying the recovery plan - which he called "the largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s" - should target projects ready to begin within 90 to 120 days of being funded.
Mr. Obama also imposed a "use it or lose it" policy. States were told they would lose their money if they failed to utilize it quickly.
But the "shovel-ready" requirement has limited what can be done with Recovery Act funding and discouraged localities from undertaking some more complicated projects, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
"One of the difficulties in the stimulus is that in the interest of shovel-ready, by definition, you're not necessarily tackling the weightier challenges facing the country and the states," he said. "Big, hairy challenges that have been hanging out there awhile [won't get resolved] because they're big, hairy challenges."
Some county officials say they would rather see larger projects affecting more traffic get funded before the small ones.
"The bridge projects are certainly worthwhile projects. We're glad to get those," said Joseph S. Paxton, county administrator in northwest Rockingham County, although he would prefer that roads to a new hospital on Route 253 get paved first.
"What we really need to get is the [Route 253] funding," he said.
VDOT plans to spend about $1.5 million repairing six bridges in Rockingham County. The traffic count on those bridges ranges from 60 to 6,100 cars per day.
Mr. Paxton said that while he would prefer other projects had been funded, the bridges are still important to rural areas.
"Generally, the bridge projects are important to us for two reasons - access for school buses, and we're the largest agricultural county in Virginia," Mr. Paxton said. "There are a large number of poultry, dairy and beef cattle operations that need access to agriculture-related vehicles that need the big bridges."
A spokeswoman for Rep. Tom Perriello, Virginia Democrat, whose district received $12 million of the $28 million of the bridge-replacement money distributed in Virginia, said the rural work is an appropriate use of the stimulus money.
"This is another example of how the Recovery Act is working efficiently," said Jessica Barba, spokeswoman for Mr. Perriello. "Rural communities generally are the hardest hit in a budget crunch for these investments."
Transportation funding accounted for the second-largest expenditure of Recovery Act funds as of March 2, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office. The report found that most states were focusing transportation funding on road and bridge repairs, rather than planning and design, because they were seeking projects that would have "employment impacts and could be implemented quickly."
Nearly all the bridges are listed by VDOT as structurally deficient, meaning they are still safe to travel on but have "significant issues" that need attention. One is listed as functionally obsolete, which means the bridge was built to standards of the time but is now out of date.
Three more are not listed in either category.
The federal Recovery Act said eligible bridges had to be listed in one of the two categories, but allows for exceptions for preventive maintenance.
Mr. Caldwell said the three unlisted bridges are expected to land on the structurally deficient list at their next inspection.
Over the next two years, Virginia expects to receive a total of $695 million in highway and bridge funding, $4 million in rail modernization and $112 million in rural and urban transit capital grants.
The projects' funding has been approved by VDOT but hasn't been approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation yet. Contracts are expected to be awarded this summer.
In Cumberland County, the Rock Creek Road bridge leads to a gravel road with seven houses and even more cattle. Five cars passed over the 30-foot bridge during a two-hour period one recent afternoon.
Two residents of Rock Creek Road said they hadn't realized the bridge was in disrepair and were not sure that was the best use of the estimated $340,000 repair cost.
"I didn't know it was broken, but I'm happy they're spending the money if it needs to be fixed," said Ann Baxter, who lives in the house closest to what she called the "little" bridge. "But I'd rather have the road paved."
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