How Wasteful Is the Stimulus Spending, Really?


Republican Sens. Tom Coburn and John McCain have apparently discovered the art of the "listicle"—that all-too-popular journalistic device that organizes information into ranked lists, such as "The Top Five Ways to Flatten Your Abs" or "The 10 Best Margaritas in Town." In this case, the media-savvy senators have released a report titled "Summertime Blues," outlining what they perceive to be the 100 most wasteful stimulus projects.

Some of the programs certainly sound ridiculous. (Rush Limbaugh will have a field day with the $71,000 used to pay for cocaine-snorting monkeys.) But are all the programs on the list really as wasteful as they seem? We took the top five projects in the report and did a little digging to discover the story behind the stimulus.

1. Replacing Windows in a Closed Visitor Center (Amboy, Wash.)

COST: $554,763

THE REPORT SAYS: "Despite having no plans to reopen a shuttered visitor center at Mount St. Helens in Washington state, the U.S. Forest Service is spending more than $554,000 to replace its windows."

THE DEFENSE: While the visitor center has indeed been closed since 2007, the Forest Service says it is repurposing the facility as it explores proposed partnerships with private companies. Some of the ideas being considered include turning the site into a "science facility, education camp, or an overnight lodge." A government official quoted in the report compares the upkeep to "keeping a vacant house in good repair."

WHAT WE THINK: Pursuing a public-private partnership certainly seems preferable to allowing the building to deteriorate—and if it wants to attract an ideal partner, the Forest Service will have to do some basic maintenance.

2. Interactive Dance Software Development (Charlotte, N.C.)

COST: $762,372

THE REPORT SAYS: "The University of North Carolina at Charlotte received more than $750,000 in stimulus funds to help develop a computerized choreography program that its creators believe could lead to a YouTube-like 'Dance Tube' online application ... Administrative expenses are unusually high for the project, however. The project's lead researcher noted that the university is taking a 44 percent cut to cover 'overhead expenses.' "

THE DEFENSE: UNC-Charlotte says the grant money is flowing "directly into the economy in many ways" by financing equipment and travel costs. The funds have also paid summer salaries for three professors, provided part-time jobs to three student employees, and gone toward dancer stipends and a handful of contracts with researchers and "costumers." (Watch this video, and you'll see why "costumers" are a necessary part of the operation.)

WHAT WE THINK: The administrative expenses seem pretty steep. Only about half the total funding is used for the purposes above. The other 44 percent of the grant—a whopping $335,000—is going toward "overhead costs," which, according to university administrator Stephen Moiser, cover "accounting, personnel, research facilities depreciation, utilities, library use ... to name a few." If you think the federal government is bad with money, academia doesn't look much better.

3. North Shore Connector to Professional Sports Stadiums, Casino (Pittsburgh)

COST: $62.5 million

THE REPORT SAYS: "With an infusion of more than $62 million in stimulus money, the project [extending the city's light rail to a growing commercial area] was taken off life support. But whether it will provide a true benefit to the city is also a matter of controversy, given that it will primarily serve to bring commuters to sporting events and a casino."

THE DEFENSE: Jim Ritchie, a spokesman for the city's Port Authority, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the light-rail connector will do much more than improve the commute for gamblers and sports fans. The area in question, he says, "has become one of the booming areas of the Pittsburgh region," and the new connector will serve a community college, a science center, a museum, several hotels and restaurants, and two corporate centers with more than 1,000 employees combined.

He also rebutted the report's charge that the project has been "blowing through cost projections at alarming rates," blaming the budget difficulties not on inefficiency, but rather the skyrocketing price of construction materials.

WHAT WE THINK: Even the senators' report concedes that if not for the extra stimulus money, the project might have been scrapped. And given the influx of consumers it's likely to bring to a developing commercial area (not to mention the fact that the federal government has already poured $350 million into the project), finishing the job hardly seems irresponsible.

4. FEMA Delay on Texas Fire Stations (San Antonio)

COST: $7.3 million

THE REPORT SAYS: "FEMA awarded $7.3 million to the city for construction of fire stations #50 and #51, but the projects have become so mired in red tape it is not clear when they will be built.

"Before the stimulus award, San Antonio was set to fully fund the two new stations with its own money, having even gone so far as to hire a private contracting firm, Bartlett Cocke, to begin work. After the stimulus, however, the city found itself unexpectedly navigating complicated and expensive federal regulations, requiring environmental and historical considerations—all delaying the project significantly. The result was an estimated $2.2 million overall increase in the cost of the two stations, and Bartlett Cocke losing its contract, which in turn had to lay off employees."

THE DEFENSE: FEMA says the report exaggerates how long it will take to get the stations built. According to a statement from the agency, "one of the San Antonio fire stations has already completed the environmental and historic review process and the city has been given permission to start construction, and the other station has completed the public notice process and construction is expected to start shortly."

WHAT WE THINK: There is little question whether fire stations are a worthy source of funding, especially in a fast-growing city like San Antonio, where FEMA says emergency responders are in heightened demand. But you've got to wonder why the federal government is paying for a project that was already funded on a local level.

5. Abandoned Train Station Converted Into Museum (Glassboro, N.J.)

COST: $1.2 million

THE REPORT SAYS: "Taxpayers may not be happy to learn that they are paying for one broken down train station twice. The Glassboro train station was built in 1860 and closed in 1971. Unused for nearly 40 years, it now sits boarded up and riddled with graffiti. In 2002, the Borough of Glassboro, New Jersey, received nearly a quarter of a million dollars from the U.S. Department of Transportation to purchase the train station … to incorporate [it] into the regional NJ Transit system …

"After eight years of failure … local officials lobbied hard for additional stimulus money. They are hoping to spend the more than $1 million for the project 'interpreting local history in its proper setting and make it a museum, public meeting space and welcome center.' "

THE DEFENSE: Glassboro borough official Randi Woerner contends that the restoration will stimulate the economy by providing jobs for local contractors and increasing the value of the houses in town. (The train station has become an eyesore, and resides literally in someone's backyard.) She also takes issue with the implication that taxpayers are "paying twice" for the project because of the city's inefficiency. In fact, Woerner explains, the city used its first grant to buy the property and get the proposed renovations approved, while the second grant will pay for the actual restoration of the historical site.

WHAT WE THINK: To be sure, the red tape surrounding historical sites has frustrated many a city planner, but Woerner is right that the project will create jobs.

With Tara Lewis