Thursday, February 05, 2009

What Does “Shovel Ready” Mean?

Digging for the Truth

Popular Mechanics has an interesting article concerning the meaning of “shovel ready,” and how little economic “stimulus” these projects really provide. EXCERPT:

So what exactly is a shovel-ready project? As the Washington Post recently pointed out, the term “shovel-ready” may have been introduced in the 1990s by New York-based electric utility Niagara-Mohawk Power, which later became National Grid (it is the current owner of the URL There are no specific parameters or requirements that define shovel readiness. But according to civil engineers, the idea behind this new buzzword could help scuttle the stimulus bill’s highly publicized, though secondary, goal of infrastructure reform. At issue is that 90-day restriction stipulated by Congress, an even narrower window than the bill’s original 180-day limit. “They’re well intentioned, and they know their infrastructure sucks, so they’re trying to do immediate reactive management to what is a very deep, endemic problem,” says Robert Bea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “If you want to patch some potholes in the road, this is a good program. But if you’re hoping for anything long-term with this approach, throw away all hope. It can’t happen.”
I am not saying that more ambitious road and bridge projects (maintenance or construction) are unworthy. However, these projects take a lot of time in terms of manpower, material acquisition, project management, etc. Regulatory hurdles also exist to make even the most successful road or bridge project happen. (Witness how long it’s taken to get the Wilson Bridge Project or the Intercounty Connector started.) I’ve actually taken some courses in project management, and believe me, implementing PM concepts is very difficult in the private sector. In the government, success varies widely, but it is quite haphazard.

Even the most “shovel ready” projects could still face opposition. I’ve actually seen environmentalist complaints concerning the smallest paving projects, with claims that runoff from tar and asphalt harms streams.

Of course, most of the “stimulus" has nothing to do with immediate projects that can be accomplished quickly or create a lot of jobs. It’s all about repaying rent-seeking constituencies that support the Democratic Party.