When discussing President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan, two phrases being heard on a daily basis in Washington political circles are ‘moving target’ and ‘shovel ready.’ “The economy is getting worse almost by the minute,” said a member of Obama's transition team, “and Mr. Obama is being forced to change his outlook.”
The official was referring to a speech at George Mason University in early January in which Obama said his $800 billion stimulus package, dubbed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, would create or save three million jobs. A week later, Obama revised upward the cost of the stimulus package and the number of jobs it addressed — from three to four million — after the government reported that the nation lost 2.6 million jobs in 2008, the largest loss since 1945, raising the national unemployment rate to 7.2%. More dramatic was that three-quarters of the jobs lost occurred during the last four months of the year.
Obama's recovery plan will take a page from what worked in the 1929 Depression and spend the country out of recession. The idea will be altered, however, in the speed and quality of projects. The vast majority of economists believe that this will be successful provided the plan is large enough, focused in the right areas, offers short- and long-term paybacks, and is administered quickly. Fortunately, for the trucking industry, construction of roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure fit all the criteria.
The challenge is to find projects that are ‘shovel ready,’ according to House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN). In a public statement, Oberstar said: “The American people sent us a clear message that they want to see their leaders take bold action to get our economy back on track and invest in our nation's future. A robust investment in transportation infrastructure accomplishes both of those goals.” Oberstar unveiled a $45 billion plan for highways, mass transit, water projects and airports that would create jobs within 90 days.
Most of the projects came from a list recently delivered to Congress that identifies $85 billion in infrastructure projects, of which about $30 billion would be for roads and bridges only. Many of these have been suggested by individual state officials who have designated their projects as being ‘shovel ready.’ The National Governors Assn. dubs $57.4 billion in projects as ‘shovel ready’ and the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials has identified $64 billion in projects that they say are ready to go. Most important to the plan's success, says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is that unlike the 1930s, these projects must pay back dividends quickly and are not just make-work projects. “This is not your grandfather's public works bill,” she promises.
Obama's biggest challenge will be to fend off politicians who want to fill the stimulus package with hidden earmarks. “Instead of politicians doling out money behind a veil of secrecy, decisions about where we invest will be made transparently and informed by independent experts wherever possible,” Obama said.
The trucking industry may be better poised than other groups to benefit from the intense focus on infrastructure funding. Indeed, it may even get a second opportunity for funding because in September, the current six-year highway bill is up for renewal. Oberstar promises that this year earmarks will not be tolerated. He also signaled an interest in focusing on boosting intermodal lanes with the goal of integrating the nation's transportation network into a seamless web that would include rail, air, trucking and short-sea shipping and shaping them for the most efficient freight hauling.
Right now, however, the industry is focusing on the stimulus bill that Obama hopes to get passed within weeks of his inauguration.