Bridges to somewhere

If you never left Wall Street, you would see little palpable evidence of the controversial $787 billion (£504 billion) stimulus bill passed by Congress in February 2009, aka the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

So last week I headed north to Vermont, to look for fresh signs in its green mountains, and to escape a New York City heatwave.

The Obama administration asserts the bill has saved about 3m jobs nationally, 85% of its initial projections, a claim difficult either to substantiate or to disprove.  The Congressional Budget Officeestimates job creation could range anywhere from 1.4m to 3.4m, quite a disparity.  Critics note that spending has been uneven, poorly tracked, and disbursed according to formulas like population and existing infrastructure, rather than actual economic  need.  A recent Republican report highlights a litany of ill conceived projects, ranging from iPods for teenage students, to cells phones for smoking quitters, not to mention expensive promotions of the stimulus itself. (article continues below)

But in Vermont, I found a maelstrom of building activity, traffic cones and draped bridges.  Up there, winter is long, and spring is muddy, leaving only a brief interval in summer for construction.  Right now, though, roads, highways and bridges are being paved and restored all over, with the backing of $143m in stimulus funds. Along with highway projects, the state has been funneling its stimulus funds into ‘smart’ energy grid upgrades, internet broadband, planned rail projects, medical and educational support.  Tax breaks include  a $400 cut per year for 95% of Vermont’s taxable 620,000 residents.

Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders has announced the stimulus accounts for 7,000 jobs in his state, 800 of which are in transportation construction – the biggest overhaul since massive floods destroyed about 1000 bridges in 1927.  Despite ubiquitous bulldozers, only a few discreet signs announce that ARRA money is responsible; unlike many other states, which have wasted millions advertising their stimulus spending with flashy signage, Yankee Vermonters have refused to erect extravagant billboards.  Actually, in the 1920s, Vermonters were even thriftier: they did not plough their winter roads, but packed and rolled the heavy snow.