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Early road aid leaves out neediest

Martin Schuller, borough manager in the Elk County seat of Ridgway, Pa., responds to news that the community will receive no immediate transportation money from President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan.  AP Photos by J. Scott Applewhite

Left: A truck carries a load of wood along Main Street in Ridgway, Pa., the seat of Elk County, Wednesday. Officials and residents of the struggling manufacturing community are learning they will receive no immediate transportation money from President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan despite their high unemployment rate. Right: Martin Schuller, borough manager in the Elk County seat of Ridgway, Pa., responds to news that the community will receive no immediate transportation money from President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan. AP Photos by J. Scott Applewhite

Brett J. Blackledge
AP Writers

Washington — Counties suffering the most from job losses stand to receive the least help from President Barack Obama’s plan to spend billions of stimulus dollars on roads and bridges, an analysis found.

Although the intent of the money is to put people back to work, a review of more than 5,500 planned transportation projects nationwide reveals states are planning to spend the stimulus in communities where jobless rates are already lower.

One result among many: Elk County, Pa., isn’t receiving any road money despite its 13.8 percent unemployment rate. Yet the military and college community of Riley County, Kan., with its 3.4 percent unemployment, will benefit from about $56 million to build a highway, improve an intersection and restore a historic farmhouse.

Altogether, the government is set to spend 50 percent more per person in areas with the lowest unemployment than it will in communities with the highest.

The analysis reviewed $18.9 billion in projects, the most complete picture available of where states plan to spend the first wave of highway money. The projects account for about half of the $38 billion set aside for states and local governments to spend on roads, bridges and infrastructure in the stimulus plan.

The very promise that Obama made, to spend money quickly and create jobs, is locking out many struggling communities.

The money goes to projects ready to start. But many struggling communities don’t have projects on a shelf.

They couldn’t afford the millions of dollars for preparation and plans that often is required.

“It’s not fair,” said Martin Schuller, the borough manager in the Elk County seat of Ridgway, who commiserates about the inequity in highway aid with colleagues in nearby towns. “It’s a joke because we’re not going to get it, because we don’t have any projects ready to go.”

The early trend seen in the analysis runs counter to expectations raised by Obama — that road and infrastructure money from the historic $787 billion stimulus plan would create jobs in areas most devastated by layoffs and plant closings. Transportation money, he said, would mean paychecks for “folks looking for work” and “folks who want to work.”

Also, Congress required states use some of the highway money for projects in economically distressed areas, but didn’t impose sanctions if they didn’t. States can lose money, however, if they don’t spend fast enough.

The analysis examined the earliest projects announced nationwide, the ones most likely to break ground and create jobs first. More projects are continually being announced, and some areas that received little or no help so far may benefit later. The Obama administration also could encourage states to change their plans.

The analysis also found that counties with the highest unemployment are most likely to have been passed over completely in the early spending.

Among them: Wheeler County, Ore.; Steuben County, Ind.; Macon County, Ga.; and Crowley County, Colo.

Many others are getting minimal help in this round: Vermillion County, Ind.; Lapeer County, Mich.; Presidio County, Texas; Tallahatchi County, Miss.

Those counties still will benefit from job creation elsewhere in their states, said Lana Hurdle, a Transportation official overseeing the agency’s stimulus money.

“Even if you have to drive to it, it’s better than no job,” Hurdle said.

Joel Szabat, who also oversees the stimulus for the Transportation Department, said the agency presses states to build projects in struggling areas but does not normally consider how much money is going to each county.

“Our goal, and I think it is a goal that will be achieved, is that you will see that a fair share of this money will go to these areas,” Szabat said.

Obama’s plan sends $38 billion to states and local governments for roads, bridges, transit and other infrastructure, about 5 percent of the overall program that also includes money for, among other things, schools, community development, technology, worker training and tax breaks.

All counties will receive some stimulus relief eventually. But the haste voiced by the White House is not reflected in the flow of highway money so far.

Federal auditors acknowledge they can’t yet track the transportation money leaving Washington, and there is no single list of the thousands of projects planned in each state. For this analysis, lists of projects approved through March by the Transportation Department and collected lists of stimulus projects that announced in 49 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were used.

Federal officials have approved 2,800 projects. The remaining projects on the list represent the states’ plans for the money. Only Virginia, which has not announced its plan, is not included.

As the number of projects grows, places like Elk County, Pa., could still be left out because they could not afford the upfront costs needed to put proposals in the pipeline.

“It’s all based on this ‘shovel readiness,'” said Elk County Commissioner Daniel Freeburg. “That’s been our stumbling block.”

Elk County surely could use jobs. The once thriving north central Pennsylvania county is home to metal factories that equip the nation’s auto industry. Layoffs are mounting.

But for now, those laid-off workers question why they’ve missed out, while money flows to more prosperous places.

AP writer Cal Woodward contributed to this story.

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