A federal spending surge of more than $20 billion for roads and bridges in President Obama's first stimulus has had no effect on local unemployment rates, raising questions about his argument for billions more to address an "urgent need to accelerate job growth."
An Associated Press analysis of stimulus spending found that it didn't matter if a lot of money was spent on highways or none at all: Local unemployment rates rose and fell regardless. And the stimulus spending only barely helped the beleaguered construction industry, the analysis showed.
With the nation's unemployment rate at 10 percent and expected to rise, Mr. Obama wants a second stimulus bill from Congress including billions of additional dollars for roads and bridges — projects the president says are "at the heart of our effort to accelerate job growth."
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood defended the administration's recovery program Monday, writing on his blog that "DOT-administered stimulus spending is the only thing propping up the transportation construction industry."
Road spending would total nearly $28 billion of the Jobs for Main Street Act, a $75 billion second stimulus to help lower the unemployment rate and improve the dismal job market for construction workers. The Senate is expected to consider the House-approved bill this month.
But the AP's analysis, which was reviewed by independent economists at five universities, showed the strategy of pumping transportation money into counties hasn't affected local unemployment rates so far.
"There seems to me to be very little evidence that it's making a difference," said Todd Steen, an economics professor at Hope College in Michigan who reviewed the AP analysis.
And there's concern about relying on transportation spending a second time.
"My bottom line is, I'd be skeptical about putting too much more money into a second stimulus until we've seen broader effects from the first stimulus," said Aaron Jackson, a Bentley University economist who also reviewed the AP's analysis.
For its analysis, the AP examined the effects of road and bridge spending in communities on local unemployment; it did not try to measure results of the broader aid that also was in the first stimulus such as tax cuts, unemployment benefits or money for states.
Even within the construction industry, which stood to benefit most from transportation money, the AP's analysis found there was nearly no connection between stimulus money and the number of construction workers hired or fired since Congress passed the recovery program. The effect was so small, one economist compared it to trying to move the Empire State Building by pushing against it.
"As a policy tool for creating jobs, this doesn't seem to have much bite," said Emory University economist Thomas Smith, who supported the stimulus and reviewed the AP's analysis. "In terms of creating jobs, it doesn't seem like it's created very many. It may well be employing lots of people but those two things are very different."
Transportation spending is too small of a pebble to quickly create waves in the nation's $14 trillion economy. And starting a road project, even one considered "shovel ready," can take many months, meaning any modest effects of a second burst of transportation spending are unlikely to be felt for some time.
"It would be unlikely that even $20 billion spent all at once would be enough to move the needle of the huge decline we've seen, even in construction, much less the economy. The job destruction is way too big," said Kenneth D. Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America.
Few counties, for example, received more road money per capita than Marshall County, Tenn., about 90 minutes south of Nashville.
Mr. Obama's stimulus is paying the salaries of dozens of workers, but local officials said the unemployment rate continues to rise and is expected to top 20 percent soon. The new money for road projects isn't enough to offset the thousands of local jobs lost from the closing of manufacturing plants and automotive parts suppliers.
"The stimulus has not benefited the working-class people of Marshall County at all," said Isaac Zimmerle, a local contractor who has seen his construction business slowly dry up since 2008. That year, he built 30 homes. But prospects this year look grim.
Construction contractors such as Mr. Zimmerle would seem to be in line to benefit from the stimulus spending. But money for road construction offers little relief to most contractors who don't work on transportation projects, a niche that requires expensive, heavy equipment that most residential and commercial builders don't own. Residential and commercial building make up the bulk of the nation's construction industry.
"The problem we're seeing is, unfortunately, when they put those projects out to bid, there are only a handful of companies able to compete for it," Mr. Zimmerle said.
The Obama administration has argued that it's unfair to count construction jobs in any one county because workers travel between counties for jobs. So, the AP looked at a much larger universe: The more than 700 counties that got the most stimulus money per capita for road construction, and the more than 700 counties that received no money at all.
For its analysis, the AP reviewed Transportation Department data on more than $21 billion in stimulus projects in every state and Washington, as well as the Labor Department's monthly unemployment data. Working with economists and statisticians, the AP performed statistical tests to gauge the effect of transportation spending on employment activity.
There was no difference in unemployment trends between the group of counties that received the most stimulus money and the group that received none, the analysis found.
Despite the disconnect, Congress is moving quickly to give Mr. Obama the road money he requested. The Senate will soon consider a proposal that would direct nearly $28 billion more on roads and bridges, programs that are popular with politicians, lobbyists and voters. The overall price tag on the bill, which also would pay for water projects, school repairs and jobs for teachers, firefighters and police officers, would be $75 billion.
"We have a ton of need for repairing our national infrastructure and a ton of unemployed workers to do it. Marrying those two concepts strikes me as good stimulus and good policy," White House economic adviser Jared Bernstein said. "When you invest in this kind of infrastructure, you're creating good jobs for people who need them."