WASHINGTON — California is broke and cannot afford thousands of public works projects, but Uncle Sam could be riding to the rescue.
Even before President-elect Barack Obama takes office Jan. 20, his transition team is negotiating a huge stimulus package now estimated to be worth some $850 billion. Cash-strapped states and cities are salivating at the prospect of the largest public works program since the New Deal.
In California alone, officials have identified $28 billion worth of ready-to-go projects. They range from upgrading the access to the Golden Gate Bridge to realigning Interstate 5 north of Redding -- and the wish lists just keep growing.
Everyone wants a piece of the action. Mayors in cities from Sacramento to Fresno have big wish lists. Environmentalists think national parks like Yosemite need help. And San Joaquin Valley farmers think the stimulus bill could help fund canal improvements.
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"I believe the funds should go to the places that have the toughest times right now," said Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
For Boxer and her Golden State colleagues, of course, that means California. They note that California is the nation's most populous state, and that many of the state's highways are in disrepair and among the most congested in the nation. Boxer said that California should receive from 10 percent to 12 percent of any appropriation, based on its population.
The stimulus package is about more than just highways, and the current negotiating is about more than just dollar amounts.
States, for instance, usually must provide a 20 percent match to receive federal money for transportation projects. Now, though, state officials and others are trying to get the requirement waived for a stimulus bill. And with more than 40 states projecting budget deficits in the next two years, that request is finding sympathy on Capitol Hill.
"Many states simply don't have the ability to make the 20 percent match in the short term," John Porcari, Maryland's secretary of transportation, told the House Transportation Committee at a recent hearing.
The committee's chairman, Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, said that's "why it's important to have 100 percent federal funding in a rescue or recovery proposal."
While the idea is getting broad support among Democrats, some Republican leaders are raising questions. House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said he has "grave reservations about taking $1 trillion from struggling taxpayers and spending it on government programs." He suggested tax cuts as a better alternative to kick-start the economy.
Other opponents, led by the National Taxpayers Union, argue that Congress should not bail out states because they increased their spending by 124 percent over the last decade, bringing about their own troubles.
California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the state needs of more than $500 billion for infrastructure projects over the next 20 years. But he said the state could get going on $28 billion worth of projects within the first 120 days of Obama's administration.
"With an immediate commitment to national infrastructure investment, it's possible to put shovels in the dirt and start immediately on projects across the nation," said Schwarzenegger.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Conference of Mayors produced a 607-page compilation of 11,391 infrastructure projects it deemed "ready to go." The so-called "Main Street Economic Recovery Plan" called for some $73 billion in federal spending.
Fresno alone sought help with 10 projects that included irrigating downtown landscaping. Together, they would cost $50 million. Modesto was more ambitious, listing three dozen projects, ranging from new wells and street paving to solar panels on city buildings. The total Modesto price tag: a quarter of a billion dollars.
But it was Sacramento that really shot for the moon, with a $2.7 billion request covering everything from raising Folsom Dam to building new police and fire stations.
"It was like make-a-wish," said a skeptical Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. "People saw this as, let's see if we can hit the federal government lottery."
The municipal demand puts some lawmakers in a bind. No lawmaker likes to reject constituent requests, especially when voters see a record-setting spending bill chugging down the Capitol Hill tracks. But Republicans and members of the centrist Democratic Blue Dog coalition, including Cardoza, say they will insist on fiscal moderation.
The mayor's projects, whether it's the $150 million to raise Folsom Dam or the $700,000 to install solar panels at the Modesto composing center, are not the only form of infrastructure spending. Lawmakers like Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, are pushing support for high-speed rail, providing federal aid to augment $9.95 billion recently approved by California voters.
State and city officials aren't the only Californians seeking a cut of the stimulus pie. The National Parks and Conservation Association has offered a $2.5 billion package of parks projects. The trick is to cast the work in terms of jobs created. Every public agency worth its salt is starting to come up with its own wish list.
"Water districts are coming to us with lists, so we'll see what's possible for them," Costa added.
California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, in a quick trip to Capitol Hill last week, pressed the case for spending some of the stimulus dollars on human investments. This could include money for child care, job training, food stamps and health insurance, Bass said.
In a similar vein, some lawmakers, including Cardoza, have urged that home mortgage assistance be included in the stimulus package.
The chair of the House Appropriations Committee, David Obey, D-Wis., has been quietly meeting with congressional leaders and the Obama transition team to craft the package.
For the sake of speed, some lawmakers want to bypass the usual committee hearings that would precede such a huge package. But by sidestepping potential hurdles, Democratic leaders could invite criticism over fast-tracking one of the most expensive bills in history. Even some Democrats, including Costa, contend the regular congressional process should be followed.
But many in California say the situation is urgent, particularly with state lawmakers and the governor unable to reach accord on a budget.
Boxer issued a report this week highlighting the state's troubles. Among the highlights: California lost more than 100,000 jobs in the last year, and its unemployment rate is 8.2 percent statewide, the highest in 14 years. From January through September of this year, 189,000 California homes were lost to foreclosure. In cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, housing prices have declined 25 percent.
Meanwhile, politicians in Sacramento continue wrangling over how to close a budget gap that's predicted to hit $42 billion by June 2010.On Wednesday, state officials halted funds for thousands of public works projects statewide, an attempt to stop the state's fiscal bleeding.
Backers of a stimulus quickly cited the action as a reason for Congress to act quickly when members convene for a new session on Jan. 6.
"California's decision to cut funding for vital infrastructure projects is yet another reminder of the desperate need for new and rapid federal stimulus investments," said Stephen Sandherr, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America. "With these investments, we'll put people back to work and money back into the economy."
PROJECTS THAT ARE READY TO GO:
Here's a sampling of public works projects that state and city officials say would be "shovel ready" and could be part of a huge economic stimulus package that's expected to pass Congress early next year.
Antlers Bridge Replacement.
Interstate 5 north of Redding. $238 million.
Replace an aging, structurally deficient steel truss structure and realign the roadway to
Improve two nonstandard curves.
U.S. Route 101 in San Francisco, southern access to the Golden Gate Bridge, built in 1936. $1.0 billion. Replace over 1 mile of aging and seismically deficient structures and roadway.
Interstate 710 Rehabilitation.
On I-710 in Los Angeles County. $335 million. Rehabilitate 45 lane miles of pavement, upgrade median barriers and construct maintenance pullouts along a key goods movement route leading from the Port of Long Beach.
Schuyler Heim Bridge Replacement.
On LA-47 at the Port of Long Beach.
$307 million. Replace a badly deteriorated lift bridge, built in 1946, with a fixed span structure that meets current seismic standard
MAYORS' WISH LIST
Potential California stimulus package projects: The mayors' wish list includes:
Railyards Tunnel/Connection to Old Sacramento. Cost: $750 million. Jobs supported: 15.
Extension of Fifth Street (Railyards Blvd. to Richards Blvd.) Cost: $47 million. Jobs supported: 150.
Intermodal Transit Facility. Cost: $100 million. Jobs supported: 300.
Folsom Dam Raise and Early Release Improvements. Cost: $150 million. Jobs supported: 350.
Capital City Freeway Improvements and Congestion Mitigation - Midtown-Howe Avenue. Cost: $200 million. Jobs supported: 300.
Downtown and Citywide Landscape Irrigation. Many tree wells and streetscape areas are without irrigation systems in place. Connect to water supply, plumbing to benefit areas, installation of water conservation appropriate irrigation systems, planting of trees. Cost: $4 million. Jobs supported: 20.
Friant Road, Copper to Audubon, southbound lanes. These travel lanes support industry and heavy trucks, as well as residential commuter traffic. Overlay paving, other structural support work, and curbing to help prevent future water erosion. Cost: $3.5 million. Jobs supported: 10.
California Avenue. Street widening, median island construction, landscape, and pavement improvement. Cost: $3.9 million. Jobs supported: 10.
Shaw & Polk Intersection Improvements. Expansion of intersection, right-of-way acquisition, signal enhancements, streetscape improvements. Cost: $1.4 million. Jobs supported: 5.
Neighborhood improvement program. Economically challenged and older neighborhoods need street, sidewalk, curb, gutter, streetlight, pedestrian support, landscape, and drainage improvements. Cost: $27 million. Jobs supported: 50.
Bus maintenance facility design & construction. Cost: $3 million. Jobs supported: 4.
Sutter Avenue Rehabilitation. Cost: $5 million. Jobs supported: 20.
Solar Roofs on City Government Buildings. Install solar roofs on six city buildings to provide power to those buildings. Cost: $5 million.
Solar Shade Structures in Five City Parks. Install 5kw solar shade structures in five city parks to provide green power to tennis courts, other lighting fixtures, irrigation systems, etc. Cost: $200,000. Jobs supported: 10.
Curb cuts throughout City for persons w/disabilities. Cost: $500,000.
Source: American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials; U.S. Conference of Mayors Main Street Economic Recovery Report, http://www.usmayors.org/mainstreeteconomicrecovery/