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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's become something of a mantra for President Obama as he presses for Congress to approve a stimulus program. One of his favorite selling points is…

President BARACK OBAMA: We've got shovel-ready projects all across the country.

WERTHEIMER: But just what makes a project shovel-ready is open to interpretation. NPR's Brian Naylor has this report.

BRIAN NAYLOR: There is no formal definition of shovel-ready. In fact, at the Federal Highway Administration they don't even use the phrase. Their preferred term is ready to go, according to acting administrator Jeff Paniati. What that means, he says, are projects on which states have already done the preliminary work.

Mr. JEFF PANIATI (Federal Highway Administration): They've addressed all the environmental requirements, as required. They've done the necessary public outreach. In many cases the design work is already completed and that they're on an approved state list.

(Soundbite of traffic)

NAYLOR: This is a good example of a shovel-ready project - outside of Washington, D.C. in northern Virginia's notoriously traffic-clogged suburbs. I'm at the intersection of Gallows Road and Lee Highway. The state wants to widen these roads and has done some of the preliminary work, but the project is on hold because Virginia doesn't have the final $32 million it needs to complete it.

The stimulus bill says for a project to be considered shovel-ready it must be ready to begin in 90 days. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has a list of almost 19,000 such projects, adding up to almost $150 billion. In Wisconsin, Democratic Governor Jim Doyle has set up an office to review projects in his state that are ready to go.

Governor JIM DOYLE (Democrat, Wisconsin): My job as governor is to make sure that that happens, that we are ready to go and that we can get people to work promptly.

NAYLOR: Doyle says there are about 7,000 transportation industry workers in Wisconsin without jobs. But Doyle's to-do list goes beyond fixing roads and bridges. The governor hopes to use some of the stimulus money to make repairs in the state's university system.

Gov. DOYLE: These are things that are just like putting a new roof on here, adding an addition, improving the science labs β€” things that do not require great designing and engineering but just work that can get done right away. And we have campuses all over the state, so it's a way that we can get people to work all over the state quite quickly.

NAYLOR: The priority on shovel-ready projects means much of the infrastructure funding in the stimulus will be spent on the decidedly unglamorous work of fixing roofs, widening roads, and repairing bridges. Critics say that does little to address the nation's serious long-term infrastructure needs.

Some analysts caution that speed should not be the only consideration in determining which projects are funded. Robert Puentes is a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. ROBERT PUENTES (Brookings Institution): We do need expeditious attention to this, but we need to make sure that these investments are made wisely. And no, we don't have to sacrifice speed in order to get smart investments.

NAYLOR: Puentes argues environmental and energy concerns should not be sacrificed in the name of quick action, and that metropolitan areas should be given priority.

Mr. PUENTES: We do need to go back and make sure that we don't lose sight of the broad objectives for infrastructure that not only advances the economy but also adheres to the goals of energy independence, environmental sustainability, social inclusion. It sounds like a lot to lay on this, but we can do it and get a three-for-one return on our investment.

NAYLOR: While states and cities have long wish lists of shovel-ready projects they'd like to begin work on, in reality far fewer will actually be funded. The House-passed stimulus included some $30 billion for road and bridge repairs, the Senate a bit more. But that's less than a third of what cities say they'd like to dig their shovels into.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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