30 ISSUES IN 30 DAYS
4:06 am
Tue October 30, 2012

30 Issues: Tracking Stimulus Funds

Art Gaylord stands next to the tracks in front of Cape Cod's railroad bridge. It's a strange-looking bridge, with a center span that goes up and down like an elevator, so trains can chug across it and boats can float under it. Spanning its top is a bundle of newly-installed fiber-optic cables — they're high-speed, networking cables that Gaylord said snake some 350 miles across Cape Cod.

"Right now we are at the railway bridge which spans the Cape Cod Canal," he said. "And this is an interesting spot, I think, because one it was one of the more challenging parts of the projects, to get across the canal."

The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — also known as the stimulus bill — totaled nearly 800 billion dollars. Of that, Massachusetts received about $7-and-a-half billion to distribute, while around another $7 billion flowed into the state directly from federal agencies. 

But this is not your grandfather's stimulus plan. The 2009 Stimulus Bill was designed to inject money into the economy quickly. Projects needed to be "shovel ready," and in many cases, it was science and technology projects that were fully designed and ready to go.

Not the New "New Deal"

Gaylord is the president of the OpenCape project — an effort to string these cables from this rail road bridge and across the Cape, creating a digital connection to the mainland. It's a $40 million project, and $32 million comes from federal stimulus funds.

"This was built during the Depression Era, another time when the government had to do some funding to get things going. "

But this time — during the Great Recession — government officials say there was no time to plan and undertake New Deal-style public works efforts — the equivalent of a 21st century Grand Cooley Dam.  

"It's a New Deal effort in that our dam is the battery technology that we moved forward," said Jeffrey Simon, director of the Massachusetts Recovery and Reinvestment Office, which distributes state stimulus funds. "Our dam is the 114 solar projects that we spent $32 million on. And I say that metaphorically because I'm looking at the kind of societal change that the dams brought in electrifying rural America as being somewhat analogous to the tremendous advances  that have been made in these alternative energy industries, for example, that will have the same lasting effect."

As of this past June, Massachusetts received and is distributing about $7.5 billion in stimulus dollars, and most all of it has been spent. Some went to safety net programs and jobless benefits. And some did go to traditional infrastructure — things like wastewater projects, parking garages, and bridge repairs. In terms of jobs, Simon said that just under 100,000 individuals have received stimulus-funded paychecks since February 2009. In the case of OpenCape, Gaylord said the stimulus has kept between 35 and 40 people working a month.

"You can't go and spend $40 million without making some jobs," he said. "People have to produce those goods, people have to install them and so forth, and moving money makes jobs."

David Augustinho agrees with that. He's the executive director of the Cape and Islands Workforce Investment Board, which received about $370,000 in stimulus funding — money he said created new jobs, trained workers and fed the economy.

"Here on the Cape for the Workforce Investment Board," Augustinho said, "we were able to operate a summer jobs program that provided summer work for 235 individuals, and for those 235 jobs, we had over 560 applications. The response was almost overwhelming. People were hurting."

Augustinho also points to the 20 certified nursing assistants that were trained and placed in jobs thanks to stimulus dollars. Still, he said he would have liked to have seen more money spent on projects reminiscent of the Depression's New Deal.

"I think there could have been a lot more invested in these kinds of public works projects that would have helped softened the blow to the construction industry," he said, "[it] could have put a lot more people to work, and could have helped us maintain our infrastructure, which is critical for us as we go forward and try to compete internationally with other countries that are able to make investments over the last 10 years that we haven't been able to make at that kind of pace."

A Long-Term Investment

Not far from the railroad bridge, in the seaside village of Woods Hole, is a thriving ocean science industry that does compete internationally. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was one of the top beneficiaries of stimulus funds in the country. During the past two-and-a-half years, the Oceanographic received about $71 million in stimulus dollars, through both state and federal agencies. 

Larry Madin is the director of research at the Oceanographic. Standing inside a towering hanger with large steel doors, Madin said some of the money — about $8 million — went to the construction of this building, mostly to house enormous pieces of ocean research equipment. 

"So this is what we call the high bay, and you can see why," he said. "This is where really big pieces of equipment, in this case moorings, are going to be put out in the ocean for a long period of time, are assembled. And some of them are going to be 10 meters tall."

Inside this hanger, the sea moorings will have barnacles scraped off and batteries replaced. It's part of what's known as the ocean observatory initiative, which can be compared to the National Weather System. It's an ocean-based, information-gathering network.

"We don't have that in the ocean," he said. "And with this program we are establishing the beginning of that kind of network of weather stations under the ocean to tell us what's happening 24-7, for long periods of time, that information can be used in computer models to help us predict how the ocean is going to be responding and how that response is going to affect the atmosphere, the weather, the climate and everything on land."

Madin calls it a long-term investment — a 30-year system that will provide valuable data related to fisheries, pollution, and climate change. 

"These are all going to have impacts on society beyond just the scientific knowledge," he said. "So we are investing in the ability of the country through these faculties to understand more about how the ocean is changing and how that's going to affect our society."

State officials say that in addition to job training and safety-net programs, projects such as OpenCape and the work at WHOI are exactly what they wanted to promote with stimulus dollars. The goal was to keep people working, but in addition to that, an emphasis was put upon funding projects and programs that will carry forward and contribute to future generations.