The Problem with Shovel-Ready
There are no specific parameters or requirements that define shovel readiness. But according to civil engineers, the idea behind this new buzzword could help scuttle the stimulus bill’s highly publicized, though secondary, goal of infrastructure reform. At issue is that 90-day restriction stipulated by Congress, an even narrower window than the bill’s original 180-day limit. “They’re well intentioned, and they know their infrastructure sucks, so they’re trying to do immediate reactive management to what is a very deep, endemic problem,” says Robert Bea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “If you want to patch some potholes in the road, this is a good program. But if you’re hoping for anything long-term with this approach, throw away all hope. It can’t happen.”
The programs that would meet the bill’s 90-day restriction are, for the most part, an unappealing mix of projects that were either shelved after being fully designed and engineered, and have since become outmoded or irrelevant, or projects with limited scope and ambition. No one’s building a smart electric grid or revamping a water system on 90 days notice....
That might be acceptable to people focused purely on fostering rapid job growth but, ironically, such stimulus spending could fall short on that measure, as well. “In the 1930s, when you were literally building with shovels, that might have made sense. That was largely unskilled labor. Today, it’s blue collar, but it’s not unskilled,” Levinson says. “The guy brushing the asphalt back and forth is unskilled, but the guy operating the steamroller isn’t. And there’s an assumption out there that construction workers are interchangeable between residential and highway projects. But a carpenter isn’t a whole lot of help in building a road.”