Marking the one-year anniversary of the $862 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on Feb. 17, President Obama likened the most expensive and audacious domestic bill in U.S. history — and one that seems to have divided the nation in an ongoing argument about government spending — to an economic savior.
“One year later, it is largely thanks to the recovery act that a second depression is no longer a possibility,” Obama said at a press conference, alluding to the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The president’s Republican opponents, meanwhile, used the occasion to blast the act as unnecessary spending.
“One thing is clear: The stimulus bill has failed,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.
It is true that fewer people are working now than last year. Republicans correctly point out that the nation’s unemployment rate has climbed from below 8 percent a year ago to nearly 10 percent today. The White House contends the recovery act will create and save some 3.5 million jobs over the next two years (right now that figure is at 2 million).
Sizing up its effect in Nashville — which has seen unemployment trends mostly follow the national trajectory — the city’s chief executive said he leaves evaluating the macroeconomics of the recovery act to others but is grateful for the cash infusion and the projects it has produced.
“If we did not have the stimulus programs, we would clearly be doing a lot less, and there would be a lot of projects that people wanted done that would not get done,” Mayor Karl Dean said.
Dean’s assessment reflects perhaps the one certainty that can be taken from the first 12 months of the recovery act’s implementation — in Nashville, anyway. After all, for every economist who says the stimulus package staved off wholesale economic meltdown, there are others who argue the gains have been disappointing. But talk to officials like Dean — those who see firsthand the money at work — and it’s clear Obama’s spending bill at the very least saved some Nashville programs, continued others and fueled projects here during an otherwise dismal year for construction activity.
More than $1 billion in stimulus funds have flowed into Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District, represented by U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat who voted for the recovery act. That money has created nearly 7,000 jobs in the geographic area that includes Davidson and parts of Wilson and Cheatham counties, according to federal figures that cover Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2009. The jobs figure is vastly higher than in the other eight districts in Tennessee because Nashville is home to Tennessee’s state government, which enjoyed a large portion of funds from the act.
The government’s stimulus-tracking website, recovery.gov, is designed to offer transparency about how the federal funds are being spent, and indeed, the wealth of information is almost overwhelming. The slightest bit of navigation will reveal initiatives throughout Nashville. Some, mostly construction projects, were unveiled with staged photo-ops and now don the familiar red-blue-and-green stimulus logo at their sites. Others have gone largely unnoticed. The list is much too lengthy to cover in its entirety without risking utter boredom.
It should come as no surprise that the state’s largest recipient for stimulus dollars by far is the Tennessee Department of Transportation, which received $489 million for road and bridge projects. TDOT oversees the type of “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects that Obama had in mind when he rolled out the spending package, which also happened to be a time when infrastructure — old roads and bridges with the potential to fail — was on the collective mind.
In Nashville, $45 million of those TDOT dollars have gone to large highway and bridge projects. The most expensive undertaking in Nashville — ranking second in the entire state — is an ongoing $32 million job to complete a bridge and connector to accommodate traffic between Interstate 40 and Briley Parkway at White Bridge Road in west Nashville. A lack of funding stalled its completion five years ago, but the renewed project has created an estimated 350 jobs.
Other Nashville road projects underwritten by the recovery act include the recently completed widening and resurfacing of Hillsboro Pike between Harding Place and Interstate 440 in Green Hills, the $5 million resurfacing of I-440 — expected to wrap this spring — and the $1.8 million bridge replacement on Chestnut Road near Greer Stadium.
“Just in general, had it not been for the stimulus money, we would have had a very, very lean year,” said TDOT Commissioner Gerald Nicely, who thinks it might have meant the fewest number of projects for any year since he was appointed to the post in 2002. “From a roadway perspective, we probably wouldn’t have gotten to any of these projects anytime soon without the stimulus.”
Your tires will thank you for the dearth of potholes and rundown city streets, too. The Metro Public Works Department has received $11.5 million in federal stimulus money, about two-thirds of which is devoted to resurfacing more than 20 corridors in Davidson County — from stretches of Dickerson and Gallatin pikes to parts of West End Avenue and Dr. D.B. Todd Jr. Boulevard. Remaining dollars will help upgrade traffic signals at various intersections, encouraging better flow and (hopefully) less driver frustration.
Moreover, stimulus dollars allocated to the Metro Transit Authority and Regional Transit Authority helped boost several mass transit projects. Among those were the launching of a bus rapid transit system along Gallatin Avenue in East Nashville, complete with hybrid buses, as well as the replacement of several rail cars and ticket machines associated with the Music City Star, the rail service that carries passengers to and from downtown to Wilson County.
In all, $37.8 million in grant money has been injected into Metro government, and that figure is expected to jump to $43 million when it’s all said and done. Eighty-nine new Metro jobs have been born out of the stimulus bill.
The 40-member Metro Council must approve resolutions to accept the grants before Dean officially signs off on them. The point person for the city’s stimulus cash is Tiffy Barnett at the finance department.
“It’s been well-placed in Metro,” Barnett said. “It’s saved programs within Metro, and it’s enabled the creation of some new things. Of course, everyone’s concern is what happens when the money runs out. But for right now, it’s certainly helped to provide some much needed cushion.”
Here’s a list of who else is on that cushion:
More heat on the street: Perhaps the most celebrated stimulus project allocated to Metro — hailed by Dean and others — is the $9 million grant awarded to the police department to bring on 50 new officers. According to spokesman Don Aaron, most of the money pays for salaries and other benefits. Once the officers graduate from training, the department will be staffed at 1,365 officers.
“These additional officers translate into a safer Nashville,” Aaron said. “This is the first time in a decade that we’ve been able to significantly grow the police department.”
Locating dislocated workers: Another target of Metro’s stimulus allotment — to the tune of $7.2 million — is “workforce development,” as carried out by the Nashville Career Advancement Center, an agency housed in MetroCenter that helps people find employment. Among other things, money awarded to the NCAC has helped train more than 500 dislocated workers in high-demand job fields such as health care, while matching some 1,100 Nashville youth with summer jobs.
“Luckily, we received the additional money through the stimulus,” said Brian Clark, NCAC operations director. “The amount of money available for us to provide training scholarships had been reducing. And when the unemployment grew to 10 percent, a lot more people were looking to be trained. So it was timely.”
Energy stars: Several green initiatives could be on the horizon for Metro General Services as part of a $6.2 million Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant, which the department has applied for through the U.S. Department of Energy.
If Metro is awarded the grant, projects would include retrofitting libraries and fire halls with more energy-efficient infrastructure and equipment; supplying other city buildings with geothermal upgrades; connecting eight miles’ worth of bikeways and greenways between White Bridge Road and Percy Warner Park; replacing traffic lights with LED versions, which chug less juice; and hiring new employees to help carry out green initiatives.
“These type of projects would have gotten on a capital list or something, but it would have been a much longer period before we could have addressed them,” said Nancy Whittemore, director of general services. “It’s an opportunity for us to do some things that we normally wouldn’t have gotten done.”
Of house and home: Meanwhile, the Metro Development and Housing Agency — which provides affordable housing for more than 28,000 Nashvillians — has received $65 million from the recovery act, $30.5 million of which came via the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The plan will soon allow MDHA to buy a projected 205 foreclosed Nashville homes from all parts of Davidson County before rehabbing and selling the houses. Fifty-six cities were selected for the program, with Nashville being the only one in Tennessee.
Another $20 million in MDHA’s stimulus money has been allocated to upgrade the department’s public housing units, particularly the agency’s seven high-rises — Parthenon Towers near Centennial Park, for example. Upgrades will include overhauling heating and water systems, mounting solar panels atop the buildings, installing new energy-efficient apartment appliances, and gutting and remaking the interiors of the cramped apartments.
“They wouldn’t happen without the stimulus money,” MDHA Executive Director Phil Ryan said. “We’re housing elderly and disabled folks — very modest-means people. We’re helping them being housed at a good place with the most economical energy
An additional $3 million directed to MDHA is aimed at homeless prevention, helping families on the verge of foreclosure retain housing, while a $7.5 million weatherization program awarded to the agency should help more than 1,000 elderly people patch up poorly insulated parts of their homes.
A feeling-good story: Besides assisting government agencies that concentrate on the city’s indigent population, the recovery act has also infused several of Nashville’s low-income health clinics with much-needed cash, groups including United Neighborhood Health Services and the Matthew Walker Comprehensive Health Care Center.
Matthew Walker, which offers primary care to low-income patients, has sipped from two different pools of stimulus funding totaling nearly $2 million, allowing the nonprofit to extend hours and renovate its two main facilities, upgrade medical and IT equipment at those facilities, and create and retain 11 positions.
“We’ve been able to enhance some of the equipment that we have, and bring on new equipment that we’ve never had before,” said Jeff McKissack, CEO of Matthew Walker. “It’s been tremendous in being able to enhance our operations.”
Maybe you’ve learned something: Nearly $90 billion in federal stimulus funds have been directed to the overall field of education, with Metro Nashville Public Schools being the obvious recipient here. According to Kecia Ray, who oversees federal spending for MNPS, the $24.6 million the district received through the recovery act was added to the district’s $34 million in Title I federal funds — federal supplements to schools with high percentages of poor children. (The district also received “state stabilization” stimulus money that came through the Tennessee Department of Education.)
Stimulus money has helped carry out the reform agenda known as “MNPS Achieves,” recently ushered in by new schools director Jesse Register, which includes hiring instructional coaches to offer professional development of teachers, as well as tutors to help students. In addition, some schools — only the 122 Metro schools that qualify for Title I spending — have used stimulus funds to pay for various school supplies. Under the recovery act, schools can have two years to use the funds.
“It’s been pivotal in our reform,” Ray said. “If we had not had this money, then we would not have been able to undergo the initiatives we did to attend to the reforms. It came at a perfect time for us.”