Stimulus Funds Help Complete Missouri's Rt. 60
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
When President Obama signed the economic stimulus package a year ago, it called for sending hundreds of billions of dollars in to the states. The term shovel-ready projects was soon rolling off the lips of state officials across the country. Missouri had four road improvement projects that were ready to go. Literally moments after the president signed the bill, shovels were in the ground, as construction got underway. At that time, district engineer Kirk Juranas was enthusiastic about putting the stimulus dollars to use.
Mr. KIRK JURANAS (District Engineer, Missouri): It's so important to the public that when we're provided funds to do transportation projects that we don't sit on our hands and we deliver them quickly and we open the project fast.
WERTHEIMER: Now, Missy Shelton of member station KSMU checks in on one of the projects one year later.
MISSY SHELTON: This time last year, driving down this stretch of Route 60 in Southwest Missouri was a real pain for most drivers. You had miles and miles of two-lane highway, and if you got behind a slow-moving vehicle, well, you were just out of luck. But now I'm actually enjoying the drive. Every few miles I have a passing lane, giving me the chance to go around the slowpokes.
Mr. JURANAS: People are able to pass and get to their destination when they anticipated they could.
SHELTON: MoDOT's Kirk Juranas oversaw the Route 60 project.
Mr. JURANAS: It's a great safety improvement. You know, before that, we had people who took risks maybe to pass people, and they're not doing that now.
SHELTON: Last year, safety was a huge concern for Clifton Wallace. Route 60 runs right by his car repair shop. He also talked last year about his hopes that a better road might bring in more business.
Mr. CLIFTON WALLACE (Owner, Car Repair Shop): Any time you have a better road, you have more traffic. And when you have more traffic, you have more business.
SHELTON: When I stopped into Wallace's shop recently, he said the road is much safer, and he's seen fewer accidents. But as for his business...
Mr. WALLACE: The way the economy has been lately, I haven't really noticed any change in business. If anything, it's slower this year. It'll pick back up, I hope.
SHELTON: At least the project did improve business for some in the construction industry. John View(ph), vice president of Jernigan Construction, expected he'd need to hire back 40 workers who had been laid off. This time last year, he was optimistic.
Mr. JOHN VIEW (Vice President, Jernigan Construction): It's a big family here, and it is important to go those people back to work. That's our goal, is to keep them working.
SHELTON: As it turns out, when they completed the Route 60 project last November, they were laid off again.
Mr. VIEW: And they have been laid off since then because of the lack of work. We were fortunate to do almost 34 to $36 million worth of stimulus work last year. The stimulus has been good for what it did.
SHELTON: But View says what it did wasn't enough. He describes the stimulus as a short-term fix, and says what's needed is sustained federal funding for infrastructure improvements. The same frustration is apparent within the Missouri Department of Transportation. Chief Engineer Kevin Keith says he wants to see long-term transportation planning.
Mr. KEVIN KEITH (Chief Engineer, Missouri Department of Transportation): The stimulus is great, but we see some problems if Congress doesn't get their act together and we have a stable, multi-year transportation program coming. Now, we're looking forward. Stimulus has been there, got that underway. What's next? And what's next doesn't look very good.
SHELTON: While transportation officials and construction companies say good things about the federal stimulus money, some politicians here in Missouri's capital find that hard to do. Republican lawmakers like State Representative Shane Schoeller argue that it hasn't helped the economy at all.
State Representative SHANE SCHOELLER (Republican, Missouri): Certainly, there may be a temporary job or two that's been created. But when you talk about jobs that are going to continue in the future, I can't find any evidence of that.
SHELTON: Comments like that irritate Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. She accuses Missouri Republicans of trying to have it both ways.
Senator CLAIRE MCCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): They're playing a game right now, I think, that they're saying that the stimulus is evil. And then they're shutting the door as their do their budgets saying thank God we have a stimulus.
SHELTON: While the politicians bicker, the money authorized in legislation the president signed one year ago is still being put to use in Missouri. Just this month, transportation officials here finished divvying up their share of the stimulus money - more than half-a-billion dollars. State transportation officials say that will keep some Missourians working, at least until the projects are complete. By then, they hope Congress will be working on a long-term funding plan to improve the nation's highways.
For NPR News, I'm Missy Shelton in Springfield, Missouri.
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