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Is Stimulus Spending Fast or Slow?

Here at ProPublica, we're closely watching stimulus projects set up by the Transportation Department. Given all the hand-wringing over how quickly -- or how slowly, depending on how you look at it -- the department is spending stimulus funds, it's worth taking a second look at the numbers.

To date, the department has obligated $15.7 billion, according to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's latest blog post last night. That is a third of the department's overall stimulus budget.
But “obligate” doesn’t mean the money has been spent, only that the department has approved the project and committed to funding it. Just $151.76 million has been paid out to the states.

Compare the two numbers, and you'll see that just one percent of overall transportation funds has actually been spent.

In the same post, LaHood points out that the rate of federal spending shouldn't slow down states from hiring workers or starting projects:

Every time we make ARRA funds available to the states, we send an immediate signal for states to advertise contracts, and for contractors to begin hiring workers and ordering materials like steel and asphalt. And for workers to make purchases. And for steel and asphalt vendors to hire workers and make purchases. That is economic stimulus, and all of that activity occurs before states have been reimbursed by DOT. When the states come back to DOT for reimbursement, then and only then do the funds we've made available become outlays.

This is how the department traditionally works -- contractors bid, and the state awards the contract; then contractors begin work and the states seek reimbursement from the federal government. So the federal government reimburses, rather than disburses. The money still gets into the economy; it's just not the federal government's money at first.

The rates at which the federal government approves projects and states award them to contractors, then, may be the better measuring sticks.
Based on the most recent weekly report, 22 states have yet to obligate 50 percent of their funds. The deadline to do that is June 30. [Update: 11 states have yet to meet the June 30 deadline]

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