Monday, July 11, 2011

What WAS Shovel-Ready

Did President Obama not have any civil engineers on his staff? Or anywhere in his administration? It would appear not. All those "shovel-ready jobs" he talked about were public works projects. Well, that happens to be in my bailiwick. I've made a career or doing the civil engineering part of public works projects. And not only me, but a lot of civil engineers have done even more public works than I have, since part of my career has also involved commercial projects.

Back in early 2009 when the president was saying that ARRA funds would go to shovel-ready jobs and put people right to work, I wanted to scream "You don't know what you're talking about." The fact is, there are very few public works projects just sitting around waiting to be funded. Since most of the time funding is required to do the engineering for these projects, the engineering isn't going to be done until at least some of the funding is in place.

Northwest Arkansas recently had a "shovel-ready" job go to construction. It's the Bella Vista By-pass, an interstate highway that will fill a gap in intestate quality roads linking Missouri and Arkansas. This is a road that was not part of the original interstate highway program, but was added some years ago based on population expansion in northwest Arkansas. It will connect Fort Smith AR and Joplin MO, both of which have interstates extending some distance north and south respectively. As either state had some money to spend, they would extend their road another ten or twenty miles, and the gap narrowed.

By 2005 the gap was down to about 25 miles. The two states did some joint planning, decided on a route that would meet, and began their respective work of seeking money and acquiring rights-of-way. Missouri got ahead of Arkansas, has their money in the bank, and has been waiting on Arkansas to get their act together. Somehow, the act never got together. Arkansas sought Federal funds and never received them. They cut back the scale of the project, proposing to initially build only a high-quality controlled access two lane road. Still, since Arkansas, for some reason, thought the good people of the United States of America, rich and poor, eastern and western, north and south, should build their road for them, the project languished.

Until ARRA. Sometime in 2010 ARRA funds filled the money gap to fill the road gap, and the project became a go. The Arkansas highway department got after a client of our engineering company to get an 18-inch water line moved, and after another utility to get a 10-inch water line moved, and after phone, gas, electrical, and cable TV companies to get their utilities moved. At some point engineering documents were completed, the road project bid in March 2011, and a road contractor mobilized in May.

Last Friday, July 8, 2011, approximately 29 months after ARRA was passed, the ribbon cutting was held for this construction project. But I need to be fair. Funds were being expended as early as August 2010, a mere 19 months after ARRA was passed, and maybe a little sooner. But the lion's share of those expenditures on this project are only now about to hit the work force.

A civil engineer could have told Barack in a heartbeat that no shovel ready jobs existed in the architecture-engineering-construction industry. Construction drawings had to be drawn and construction specifications written. Land had to be acquired or condemned. Bids had to be received and low bidders qualified. Mobilization time had to be spent.

A civil engineer could have told you, Mr. President. But then your lie would have become known. Everyone would have known that it wasn't the construction projects and construction jobs that were "shovel-ready", but something else entirely, which we usually talk about in euphemisms with shoveling-like gestures. Yes, something was shovel-ready from your administration, but it wasn't the jobs.

Get ready, America. We've got at least 18 more months of having to watch where we step.


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