Projects 'start' now, build later

Stimulus funds flow slowly

The Associated PressSeptember 17, 2009 

— Under pressure to show quick results from the economic stimulus, the White House is taking credit for starting to build hundreds of rural water systems nationwide.

But don't look for construction crews any time soon. At most job sites, it could be awhile. Sometimes, a long while.

It all depends on what the definition of "starting" is.

WHAT HE SAID: Vice President Joe Biden said two weeks ago, "We set a goal of starting to build 200 water sanitary systems and wastewater treatment facilities in rural America. We've met that goal." The White House Web site says: "We are pleased to report that new waste and water systems are under way in 200 communities in rural America."

THE FACTS: Wednesday marked the 100-day deadline Biden set in June for his promise. Despite claims that the administration has started to build these projects, many exist only on paper and won't see construction for some time.

Of the 10 largest projects in the continental U.S. announced by the Obama administration in the past 100 days, none has begun construction. Workers won't begin digging at many job sites until next year.

Administration officials say words like "starting" and "under way" were used because when money for a project is announced, that starts the ball rolling toward construction.

"When you announce a project, you've begun a project," Department of Agriculture spokesman Justin DeJong said. "Everything is begun."

Some projects, such as a sewer plant in Monticello, Ind., are more than a year away from construction.

"We're looking to go bid that job the latter part of the fourth quarter 2010," said Mike Darter, regional superintendent of the Twin Lakes Regional Sewer District. "We'll more than likely start construction in 2011."

In Pickens, S.C., officials don't even know whether they're going to take the government's money. Accepting the $15.8 million in grants and loans would require residents to shoulder a big water rate increase, and City Administrator Katherine Brackett said Pickens may reject the money.

Yet the Obama administration counts Pickens as a project the administration has already started to build.

There's nothing unusual about the process, just the vocabulary. Even under the administration's timeline, water projects can take more than a year to get going.

Most of the projects on the list are in what officials called "pre-construction," which means towns are completing engineering, acquiring land, getting permits and processing paperwork.

"It's just a matter of going out for bids and satisfying all the paperwork. Then we'll be breaking ground," said Evan Capron, city administrator in Columbus, Kan., which will benefit from a $12 million federal aid package.

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