WASHINGTON — States and cities are lining up infrastructure projects to take advantage of a $500 billion stimulus package President-elect Barack Obama hopes Congress will enact shortly after his inauguration Jan. 20.
Even in a state like South Carolina, where the governor and a senator oppose the stimulus package.
The potential benefits under President-elect Barack Obama's $500 billion economic-recovery plan could fill the state government's revenue shortfall and help realize House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn's dream of turning the I-95 "corridor of shame into an oasis of opportunity."
The Obama stimulus funds could make the state's fabled beach-waters cleaner by modernizing sewer-treatment plants and retrofitting ocean pipelines. It could pave crumbling rural roads, fix unsafe bridges, replace century-old schools and build new ones for kids now in trailer classrooms.
"We’ve got a lot of old buildings," said state Superintendent Jim Rex. "Some of them can be upgraded. Others, frankly, need to be replaced. And we have some fast-growing districts that can't keep up with growth and must turn to portable classrooms."
Even before the details of Obama's plan are worked out, a nationwide army of officeholders, contractors, unions and other groups are putting dibs on the money.
-- The National Governors Association, with Republican Mark Sanford in dissent, disclosed $136 billion in urgent infrastructure needs.
-- The U.S. Conference of Mayors, with Bob Coble of Columbia and Charleston’s Joe Riley in tow, detailed 11,391 in infrastructure projects costing $73 billion.
-- The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials listed $545 billion for repair and construction of highways, transit, freight movement and intercity passenger rail – including $850 million for South Carolina.
Some of the groups' projects are overlapping. But their figures and all the pent-up demand at such an early stage alarm even Democrats who are helping to shape the Obama stimulus initiative.
"Everybody's coming to Congress and saying, 'I've got a great ideal for that stimulus package,' " said Jim Berard, a spokesman for Rep. James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
"The next thing you know, we've got another $100 billion (in projects)," Berard said. "The numbers have just been growing and growing and growing."
Some of the projects won't get funded because they would take to long to begin or to complete.
In order to jolt the economy quickly, Obama wants to limit funding to jobs that can start within 180 days and be finished within two years; Democratic lawmakers are weighing even tighter timeframes.
Other projects won't make the cut because they clearly aren't infrastructure needs.
The Mayors Conference list, for example, includes $8.9 million for a new city gym in Charleston, S.C., and almost $7.3 million for Columbia, S.C., police salaries, fringe benefits, uniforms, equipment and patrol cars.
The mounting numbers and the questionable projects explain in part why, despite the prospective benefits for South Carolina from Obama's economic-stimulus plan, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and Gov. Mark Sanford oppose the whole idea.
"I believe that government spending on infrastructure is probably one of the best investments we can make," DeMint, a Greenville Republican, said. "But doing it with borrowed money doesn't make sense. I don't believe that more deficit federal spending at this time is the way to get us out of a recession."
When Obama joined most of the nation’s governors, Democrat and Republican, on Dec. 2 to unveil the $136 billion in infrastructure needs, GOP Govs. Sanford and Rick Perry of Texas were among a small group of dissenters.
"The federal government is not only burying future generations under mountains of debt,” Sanford and Perry wrote in a Wall Street Journal column published that morning. "It is also taking our country in a very dangerous direction – toward a ‘bailout mentality’ where we look to government rather than ourselves for solutions."
Obama and his Democratic congressional allies, with Clyburn at the forefront as the No. 3 House leader, plan to launch a $500 billion stimulus initiative next month, at least one-third of it -- $166 billion or more – targeted at infrastructure needs across the country.
South Carolinians, especially the poor, the sickly and the unemployed, would get tens of millions more under the Obama initiative in separate new funding for healthcare, jobless benefits, food banks, alternative-energy development and a host of other needs.
Based on its population, South Carolina would get $2.46 billion for infrastructure projects employing almost 40,000 people – if Obama succeeds in using his sweeping election win and expanded Democratic control of Congress to achieve his goal.
That's a huge sum of money – even compared with the $37 billion South Carolina gets each year in total federal funds, for everything from Medicare and Social Security payments to support for its military bases, state universities and Coast Guard operations.
Some other Republican officeholders from South Carolina don’t share the negative views of DeMint and Sanford on an infrastructure infusion from the feds.
"We have a backlog of roads and bridges in dire need of repair and modernization,” said Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Sen. Lindsey Graham. "We also have infrastructure projects on the drawing board, like I-73, which are absolutely critical to the future of our state. Creating jobs and revitalizing our state and national economies remain top priorities for Senator Graham."
Rep. Henry Brown, a Hanahan Republican fresh off the closest election of his career, said his coastal district and other parts of the state badly need the money.
“I was delighted to hear that one of Obama’s initiatives to get us out of the recession is to concentrate on infrastructure,” Brown said. “That’s been one of my main goals.”
Brown wants some of the Obama funds to advance construction of the I-73 leg from the North Carolina border to Myrtle Beach in his district, a projected $2.4 billion endeavor still in its early stages.
In Brown’s view, big population shifts from the country’s Rust Belt to the South in recent decades have hugely increased wear-and-tear on the region’s roads. A corresponding boost in federal highway funds to maintain them, he said, hasn’t followed.
Rep. Gresham Barrett, a Westminister Republican with gubernatorial ambitions, said building and maintaining the nation’s roads, bridges, railways and water plants is a core responsibility of Congress.
“If you look at the Constitution, it talks about interstate commerce,” Barrett said. “One of the things I firmly believe the government needs to be doing is infrastructure. Through the years, we have not kept up our entire infrastructure like we should have.”
Barrett is encouraged by Obama’s insistence that his stimulus plan will rate infrastructure projects based on national needs instead of the parochial interests responsible for pork-spending in the past.
"A new president has a honeymoon period," Barrett said. "At this point, I’m willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. I hope he can pull both sides together. I hope he can pull the country together. I hope he can help get the economy stimulated in the right way."