Stimulus spending signs rile some taxpayers

Image: Workers smooth out a new sidewalk at a federal stimulus funded road project in Colorado
Workers smooth out a new sidewalk at a federal stimulus funded road project in Littleton, Colorado. John Moore / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Russell Pohl sees a relatively small but symbolic waste of taxpayer money when he drives by a road sign advertising a construction project paid for by the federal stimulus package.

The signs, which typically cost between $500 and $1,200 to design, make and install, read: "Putting America to Work" in black letters on an orange background, and "Project Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" in white letters on a green background.

"That's six or so more potholes we could have filled, instead of wasting that money on a sign," said Pohl, a 40-year-old custom countertop and cabinetry maker from rural Clinton County about 30 miles north of Lansing. "A lot of people have mixed feelings about the stimulus anyway. If taxpayers are going to foot the bill, I'd at least like to think the money is being spent wisely."

The signs have been spotted from the bumper-to-bumper traffic of Chicago's congested interstate system to lightly traveled highways leading to northern Michigan's lakes and forests.

President Barack Obama's administration says the thousands of signs appearing in several states are useful sources of information for taxpayers wondering where money from the Recovery Act is going.

Promote transparency
"We look at it as a way to promote transparency," said Sasha Johnson of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The use of federal stimulus road signs is not mandatory but has been encouraged, she said.

Signs announcing road projects and how they're being paid for aren't new — many states have erected them for years.

But with the economy tanking and the nation deeply in debt, the markers have struck a nerve with some. Unlike most traffic construction signs that can be reused for several years, the Recovery Act signs will be outdated when the program expires in 2011.

Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin has criticized the practice on her Web site, calling the signs "tax-subsidized re-election billboards" and "stimulus hype propaganda sporting the mark of the porkulus beast." U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has included the road signs in a list of what he considers the most questionable stimulus spending.

There is no separate budget for the road markers, making it difficult to estimate how much will be spent on them nationwide. The federal government and state transportation departments say they don't keep track. The signs are paid for out of the budgets of individual stimulus-funded projects at the state or local level. Many are made by private contractors.

The state of Michigan estimates each sign costs about $400 to $500. The Illinois Department of Transportation puts the cost of each one at about $300 to make, with the total price rising to about $1,000 including labor, wooden mounting posts and other installation costs. Colorado officials estimate a medium-sized sign costs $750 to $1,200 installed.

The three states could not provide an estimate on how many signs may be put up or how much might be spent on them within their borders.

There were 4,840 highway projects funded through the Recovery Act nationwide as of June 22. If every one had a Recovery Act sign costing $800, it would cost nearly $3.9 million — roughly $1 for every $4,000 spent on highway projects so far worth about $15.4 billion.

But not all projects have the signs. And some states plan to move the ones they do have from finished projects to new locations as the Recovery Act work unfolds.

Reuse signs
"If we have signs that can be reused, we will reuse them," said Liz Boyd, spokeswoman for Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Obama's administration gave states conflicting messages on stimulus project sign use as the hastily approved program unfolded.

On March 12, federal highway officials issued guidelines with a place for an optional plaque for state-specific information including the names of public officials. The names of Granholm and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, both Democrats, were posted on signs first put up in their states.

But federal officials dropped the optional plaque from their guidelines 12 days later, after they decided including the names of public officials would be inconsistent with regulations covering what's known as the federal aid highway program.

Signs already made were allowed to go up. But states were instructed that future signs shouldn't include public officials' names. Michigan officials estimate that Granholm's name wound up on roughly 25 signs.