As President Obama urges Congress to pass the $800 billion-plus stimulus package, one of his favorite selling points is the thousands of projects nationwide that he calls "shovel ready" — meaning planning is complete, approvals are secured and people could be put to work right away once funding is in place.
There is no formal definition for shovel ready. The Federal Highway Administration says it doesn't use the phrase. Its preferred term is "ready to go," according to acting administrator Jeff Paniati.
That means a state has already done the preliminary work for that project, he says.
"They've addressed all the environmental requirements as required," Paniati says. "They've done the necessary public outreach. In many cases, the design work is already completed ... and that they're on an approved state list."
One example of a shovel-ready project is the Gallows Road-Lee Highway intersection in the notoriously traffic-clogged suburbs of Northern Virginia outside Washington, D.C. The state wants to widen the roads and has done some of the preliminary work, but the project is on hold because Virginia doesn't have the final $32 million needed to complete it.
The stimulus bill states that for a project to be considered shovel-ready, it must be ready to begin in 90 days. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has a list of almost 19,000 such projects, adding up to almost $150 billion.
In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle has set up an office to review projects in his state that are ready to go.
"My job as the governor is to make sure that that happens — that we are ready to go and that we can get people to work promptly," Doyle says.
He says there are about 7,000 transportation industry workers in Wisconsin without jobs. But Doyle's to-do list goes beyond fixing roads and bridges. The governor hopes to use some of the stimulus money to make repairs in the state's university system.
"These are things like putting a new roof on here, adding an addition, improving the science labs — things that do not require great designing and engineering but just work that can get done right away," he says. "And we have campuses all over the state, so it's a way that we can get people to work all over the state quite quickly."
The priority on shovel-ready projects means much of the infrastructure funding in the stimulus will be spent on the decidedly unglamorous work of fixing roofs, widening roads and repairing bridges. Critics say this would do little to address the nation's serious long-term infrastructure needs.
And some analysts caution that speed should not be the only consideration in determining which projects are funded.
"We do need expeditious attention to this, but we need to make sure that these investments are made wisely and that we don't have to sacrifice speed in order to get smart investments," says Robert Puentes, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution.
Puentes argues that environmental and energy concerns should not be sacrificed in the name of quick action, and that metropolitan areas should be given priority.
"We do need to go back and make sure we don't lose sight of the broad objectives for infrastructure that not only advances the economy but also adheres to the goals of energy independence, environmental sustainability, social inclusion — it sounds like a lot to lay on this, but we can do it and get a three-for-one return on our investment," he says.
While states and cities have long wish lists of shovel-ready projects they'd like to begin work on, far fewer will actually be funded. The House-passed stimulus included some $30 billion for road and bridge repairs; the Senate version included a bit more. But that's less than one-third of what cities say they'd like to dig their shovels into.