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Five months into the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, it's too early to tell how much impact the legislation has had. But with some projects under way, managers and manufacturers alike hope this is the beginning of a revitalized construction industry and the economy as a whole.
According to our fifth annual survey of the use of architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) firms, only 19% of respondents plan to use stimulus funds to retain a firm this year. Departments that have received funds, though, are quickly accessing their consulting partners.
“We've done pretty well in the shark tank of stimulus funds,” says Keith Reester, public works director of Loveland, Colo., which is slated to receive an average of $1,800/capita for a total of $8.9 million. He thought very carefully about how to position his successful request for $3 million through the Colorado DOT's Region 4 ARRA allocation.
“We didn't come to the table and say, ‘Give us everything for this project,'” Reester says. “We were just looking for a partner to get us over the hump.”
The “hump” is an interchange that had been designed, approved for $1.2 million in state transportation department grants, and for which $2.2 million in tax increment financing had been arranged. “We argued that we could leverage local dollars to fund a project that the state couldn't pay for itself.”
Reester is one of the fortunate few whose projects were among the first to be approved. According to a May report by the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, work had started on just 600 of the 2,901 highway and transit projects — valued at almost $10 billion — that had been put out for bid. By June, $53 million — or just 0.41% — of the U.S. DOT's $12.8 billion had actually been disbursed.
“Sales are about 25% below where they were this time last year, but we have seen an increase in the last few weeks,” says Scott Fier, president of American Highway Products, which makes steel manhole and catch basin risers. Every state differs in how it allocates recovery money, and although the total amount of $787 billion sounds massive, the amount available for infrastructure isn't as impressive.
“There are freeways, bridges, municipal streets, light rail, airports, docks,” he says. “You split up all the money, and it is so small. It's like putting out a house fire with one bucket of water.
“In one year Caltrans [the California DOT] operates on more than half of what was given to the entire nation in highway funding. You might be the lucky recipient of $200,000, but contractors get those jobs all the time. Every year we start getting busy at this time, so this is no different from any other year.”
Some manufacturers expect a jump in sales by the end of the year, although Kim Paggioli hasn't seen one just yet. But the vice president of marketing and quality assurance for Hobas Pipe USA, which manufactures large-diameter pipes, expects sales of commodity products such as PVC pipe and other off-the-shelf supplies to be among the first product categories to rebound.