Less Than Stimulating

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The Jackson Avenue Improvement Project in Syosset was set to receive federal stimulus dollars, but was rejected due to differing federal standards. The project eventually went forward with funding from Nassau County. (Photo by Robert J. Schultz)

Jon Lentz, City & State
October 8, 2012

The Jackson Avenue Improvement Project in Syosset was set to receive federal stimulus dollars, but was rejected due to differing federal standards. The project eventually went forward with funding from Nassau County. 

In a time of municipal budget cuts and tight finances, it's not easy for government officials to scrape together the cash needed to upgrade and expand New York's infrastructure, let alone keep aging roads and bridges from crumbling. 

The most ambitious attempt to solve the problem was the 2009 federal stimulus package, aimed in part at providing a quick influx of cash to get "shovel-ready" projects moving as part of a larger goal of jump-starting the economy and creating jobs.

But the plan didn't always play out as well as advertised, both critics and supporters say. 

Marc Herbst, the executive director of the Long Island Contractors' Association, said that some local governments in New York who sought federal stimulus dollars struggled to qualify for the money, given the challenges in meeting detailed federal standards that differed from local and state requirements.

And while much of the money from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has already been disbursed, the challenging experience has had a longer-term impact in discouraging municipalities from seeking federal dollars in the future, Herbst said. 

"The red tape and the bureaucracy ... it's not worth the headache," he said. "So now our perception that we've received from the local governments is that they'd rather not deal with the federal dollars because it's too difficult. The intention was to put people to work, but all it's done is create more bureaucracy, which is an issue." 

So far, more than $17 billion in stimulus funds have been awarded in New York. But local officials were never able to secure federal dollars for some projects even though they were ready to go, such as the Jackson Avenue project in Nassau County.

Nassau County officials thought the project to upgrade heavily trafficked Jackson Avenue in Syosset, a town of 18,829, would be a perfect candidate for stimulus dollars, since it was "shovel-ready" and already met local and state design specifications. 

"All the T's were crossed, all the I's were dotted. It was in the capital plan. It was approved. Everything was a go," Nassau County Legislator Judy Jacobs said. "All of the pre-engineering work was done. Everything." 

The realignment project was submitted to the federal government in 2009 and won $3.6 million in ARRA funds. But in late 2009 the federal funds were put on hold. After further review, the county learned that the project did not qualify. 

"The thing, and I'm not blaming anyone, was that no one realized on the county or the town level--or any level--was that the federal requirements are different," Jacobs said. When the balance of power shifted in the county legislature shortly after, "what was a given before, all of a sudden was not a given any more once we lost the federal funding." 

The Jackson Avenue project wasn't an isolated case. President Barack Obama himself acknowledged in a 2010 interview with The New York Times that the rhetoric of funneling much of the $787 billion stimulus into shovel-ready projects did not pan out, saying, "There's no such thing as shovel-ready projects." 

In Nassau County Jacobs said she felt "awful" that she had ever agreed to try to seek federal financing, though ultimately she was able to work with the town supervisor of Oyster Bay, John Venditto, to find a bipartisan solution to get the project done with county funds. 

"However, in the federal government's defense, who would know that their specs are different than regular specs that the state of New York would agree to?" she said. "Now, I'm sure there are specs that come with it. I don't know where the error was here." 

As for Herbst, while in his opinion the federal stimulus did some good, it has also had a lasting negative impact.

"Did it put some people to work? Yes," he said. "And as for the aftermath, the concern that we have is that, with the federal dollars coming, came along strings."

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