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Biden: $19B in highway stimulus already set aside

President Barack Obama walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 25, 2009, as final preparations are made for tonight's luau. President Barack Obama walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 25, 2009, as final preparations are made for tonight's luau. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
By Brett J. Blackledge and Matt Apuzzo
Associated Press Writers / June 25, 2009
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WASHINGTON—Federal money to spur economic recovery is being shoveled out of Washington at a fast clip, the White House said Thursday, but states aren't steering the cash to counties that need jobs the most.

All 50 states easily beat a June 29 deadline to have half of their stimulus projects for roads and bridges approved. Vice President Joe Biden said transportation officials have approved more than 5,300 projects worth more than $19 billion. States have broken ground or started taking bids on about 1,900 of those, he said.

"Our No. 1 priority with the Recovery Act is getting folks back to work, and there is no better way to do that in these early days than by putting shovels in the ground and jump-starting projects like these that create jobs and boost local communities," Biden said.

The Transportation Department released a detailed list of 4,801 projects totaling $16.5 billion. The list shows that state officials will spend 20 percent more per person in counties with the lowest unemployment than in counties with the highest.

Counties where unemployment is below 6.1 percent will receive about $63 per person in transportation money, compared to $52 per person in counties where unemployment is between 10.8 and 28 percent, according to an Associated Press analysis. The national unemployment rate is 9.4 percent.

The disparity is smaller than one seen in an AP analysis in May, which reviewed nearly $19 billion in projects announced by states. State and local officials said well off communities could more easily afford the upfront planning needed to ensure their projects were ready to go when the stimulus was announced.

In response Thursday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said: "Recovery dollars for transportation projects continue to move at a record pace, creating jobs in communities across the nation. I'm very proud of our record."

The Obama administration criticized the AP's earlier analysis, saying it ignored that workers in high-unemployment areas could travel across counties for stimulus jobs. As evidence, LaHood cited Mississippi construction worker Willie Fort, who left his wife and four children at home and took a stimulus-funded job in Louisiana. He travels home every two weeks to see his family.

The newly released federal data represents the government's official snapshot of spending to date. But the information was partly incomplete because it did not identify county locations for 232 projects representing more than $650 million in spending, or about 5 percent of the projects.

Not only is the administration spending stimulus money far faster than normal, spending is to accelerate this summer.

Still, Florida Rep. John Mica, who voted against the stimulus bill, criticized the administration, saying the transportation money needs to be spent even faster. Mica, the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, had opposed the stimulus because it did not spend enough on infrastructure and would not create jobs quickly enough.

Since the stimulus was passed, the U.S. economy has shed 1.6 million jobs. The Obama administration has focused instead on its estimate that the stimulus has created or saved 150,000 jobs.

"I know it's hard to convince people that when we lost 345,000 jobs last month that we actually created or saved 150,000," Biden said Thursday. "I keep referring people to the fact that it was projected to be 500,000."

The estimate comes from a formula that uses government spending and tax cuts to predict job growth. The formula has been used by Republicans and Democrats alike, but it was built to predict jobs, not count jobs. To count jobs, economists traditionally rely on Department of Labor data, which has so far been worse than the administration and most economists estimated.

"I don't want anybody being discouraged about the fact that we're getting pushback and saying we're not," creating jobs, Biden said. "We are creating jobs."