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Blogging the Transportation Committee's Stimulus Hearings

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is meeting this morning to do a "120-day progress report" on the stimulus package's transportation programs. ProPublica will be there to sift through the proceedings. (And, if you're really dedicated, you can watch the hearings live along with us.)

We've been tracking the stimulus package -- its  progress and its problems. And we'll be continuing that coverage with today's hearing. Here's the list of witnesses (PDF), which will include the heads of the FAA and Federal Highway Administration. We'll update this post as the hearing goes on.

11:10 a.m.: The committee is coming to order. Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., begins by talking about the need for transparent reporting, equitable distribution of spending throughout states, and the prioritization of areas of high unemployment. "We committed to openness, transparency, and accountability."

Oberstar cites newspaper reports that "misunderstand" the way these federal programs work. He says that states are notified of their allocation; advertise for bids; evaluate them; award bids; contractors begin work; bill the states; the state sends the bill to the federal government; and the federal government reimburses the state.

"The reality is that there are 4,366 projects that have been approved from all states, three of the territories, and D.C., representing $14.4 billion ... 4,098 projects as of last week have been put out to bid ... there are 21,000 on-site jobs.

"Some of the work of the recovery is ahead of schedule; the numbers aren't showing up in the accounting."

11: 18 a.m.: Oberstar says he's confident the program is off to "a fast start, a good start."

11:19 a.m.: Oberstar turns the floor over to Rep. John Mica, the committee's ranking Republican, who notes that just 7 percent of the entire stimulus package was for infrastructure.

Rep. Mica: "We're getting strangled with government red tape and bureaucracy." He cites commentary from local officials, saying, "This is pitiful that we cannot get this stimulus money out."

11:27 a.m.: Oberstar responds to Mica's complaints, saying he has no sympathy for those who claim the program is too burdensome. "I want to hear what their complaints are, but on the surface of it, I have little sympathy."

11:52 a.m.: The committee has now heard from three witnesses -- the administrators of the FAA, Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Transit Administration -- each of whom stated the number of jobs projected to be created by their agency's share of the stimulus money. By design, there are no surprises to be found in these statements. The real news, if it comes, will be in found in whatever questions are asked, particularly by the committee’s Republican members.

12:13 p.m.: The first panel of witnesses wraps up with Joseph Boardman, the CEO of Amtrak. Oberstar goes back to his original point: refuting the argument that the stimulus money is being held up by red tape. He holds up a flash drive: "It's a little computer device," he begins, "about the size of my thumb. This is what it produces." Oberstar then holds up a report from Minnesota and describes the process by which that report is sent into the state transportation department, which sends it in to the committee.

"We're getting all this information: projects in construction, construction status, their location," continues Oberstar, "so when I hear complaints that there's such a burden of paperwork, I have no patience for those who've been given hundreds of millions of dollars. Baloney. If that's burdensome, those complainers need to get a shovel and get a callus on their hand, instead of a complaint in their outbox."

12:24 p.m.: Rep. John Boozman, a Republican on the committee, asks Jeffrey Paniati, the acting deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, how he differentiates between jobs created and jobs saved by the stimulus program. Paniati ducks the question, but it's crucial to the debate over the stimulus package: How many of the jobs that come out of the bill are actually new? That's not a question that will be resolved at this hearing.

12:45 p.m.: Rep. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, asks a good question: How can Congress be sure that the job creation and job retention numbers provided are accurate? The administration officials talk about the systems they use to verify those numbers, but at first listen, they don't sound particularly robust. In large part, it sounds as though agencies rely on contractors' reports. (We've been reporting on the Obama administration's iffy stimulusjobnumbers since February.)

12:52 p.m.: The FHA's Paniati says that all 50 states have met the June 30 deadline of obligating 50 percent of their stimulus money for transportation. Fifteen states have obligated more than 80 percent of their money, while Maine, at the top of the class, has obligated a full 100 percent. That deadline was crucial, as states stood to lose money by failing to meet it.

1:07 p.m.: Rep. Joseph Cao, a Republican from Louisiana, asks the agency heads about the system they use to ensure that economically distressed areas get priority for transportation funds. "Or," Cao asks, "do governors and state legislators allocate funds for political purposes?"

The FHA's Paniati responds that his agency reviews how states divvy up the funds. It also reviews the process by which states reach that decision, he says, and the hearing moves on. But the question of political influence in divvying up funds at the state level is another key issue in the stimulus debate that's unlikely to go away.

1:17 p.m.: Rep. Donna Edwards, a Democrat from Maryland, goes back to the issue raised by Cao, asking whether the jobs and contracts that stem from the stimulus package really reflect where the needs are in her state. "Who's gotten those contracts?" she asks. "Where are those jobs created?"

She adds that there are minority contractors in her district that she feels haven't "fully enjoyed the benefit of the stimulus funds." Paniati says that the FHA is working with state DOTs to make sure the money is equitably spread around.

1:35 p.m.: The first panel of witnesses has been dismissed. Some of the themes from today's hearings will remain in the news: questions about how stimulus funds are allocated to different areas of each state; whether (and how) job numbers provided by contractors are being independently verified; and, as always, Republican arguments that stimulus dollars aren't getting out the door fast enough due to red tape. ProPublica will keep updating you on these issues in the months to come.

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