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For road crews, stimulus promises more opportunity

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February 16, 2009
— Every weekday, a few dozen road construction workers gather at 6:30 a.m. on a dirt lot behind the offices of JRD Contracting.

These job seekers are finding fewer opportunities as the economic downturn grinds on, and the paychecks are smaller. But the tide may soon turn, if just a bit, in their favor.


For road construction crews across the country, the $787 billion stimulus package passed by Congress is nothing short of a godsend. A key part of President Barack Obama's plan is to pump money into the nation's infrastructure, including a jolt of cash for building and fixing highways.


"If he holds to that, it's going to give all of the people in the road-building industry a chance to survive," said Curtis Scarbrough, a foreman at JRD Contracting who is married and has two children.


Any extra work that flows to Scarbrough and his co-workers will mean a lot.


"I kind of live a week at a time," said 21-year-old Caleb Cooper, an unskilled laborer for JRD, located in Camden. His boss, owner John Daily Sr., said Cooper is willing to do "most anything that comes along."


The national unemployment rate is 7.6 percent, the highest since 1992, and it's more than double that 18.2 percent in the construction industry overall. It's hard to pin down the unemployment figure specific to the highway sector because so many workers are part-time, said Billy Norrell, executive director of the Alabama Road Builders Association.


Alabama is getting about $600 million in infrastructure funds from the stimulus. Norrell said that could translate into 17,500 jobs in road construction a huge kick-start in a state that lost about 42,000 jobs last year.


The stimulus package could steer $27 billion into road-building projects nationally, plus about $12 billion for rail and mass-transit work and other infrastructure improvements. Most of the federal money would flow to contractors and crews through state transportation departments for projects considered "shovel ready." State highway officials and contractors say it's vital to be ready with shorter-term projects designed to get people working soon.


In Oklahoma, state transportation director Gary Ridley is telling contractors the stimulus money could come in early April. Oklahoma already has an eight-year plan detailing needed road building. Ready-to-go jobs are being plucked from the list, and Ridley said $1.1 billion worth of projects could be ready quickly. And the faster that customers want the jobs done, the more overtime road crews can expect to make.


State officials and industry leaders welcome whatever stimulus money comes their way, though their view is long enough to keep their expectations in check.


In Michigan, where the unemployment rate of 10.6 percent is the nation's highest, the state's spending on road projects has dropped from $1.5 billion a year to $900 million this year, said Mike Nystrom, spokeman for the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association.


The roughly $450 million Michigan is expecting in stimulus funding for road projects almost "gets us back to where we were," Nystrom said.


"We're not looking at this as something that's suddenly going to be a boom for the industry. We see this as a short-term fix to a long-term problem."


For those who have been out of work, the need for a piece of the stimulus pie is immediate.


The recession has been felt acutely in Camden, the Wilcox County seat in a section of south Alabama that has long been economically depressed. The unemployment rate in Wilcox County is 15.1 percent, the highest rate in the state. The county government has laid off 27 of its 110 workers and reduced remaining employees to a 32-hour work week, which means a 20 percent pay cut.


"It's as bad as it's ever been in my lifetime," said Wilcox County Commissioner Mark Curl, 49.


Tales about the size of potholes on rural county roads are legendary in Wilcox County, where the state has declared 12 bridges unsafe.


"It's not like we'd be making up work. We've got legitimate projects that need to be done," Curl said.


The 67-year-old Dailey, who has run JRD Contracting for two decades, says the economic stimulus package could bring a return to the days, not so long ago, when his full 45-worker team would be tapped for work each morning.


JRD's workload is down about 40 percent since last summer, Dailey said recently, leaning on his desk in a modest two-story tin building that serves as the company's office. It's not just his company that's suffering.


Dailey said about 15 companies from across the state recently submitted bids to make parking lot improvements at a west Alabama college. During good times, the small project would have only drawn interest from two or three local contractors, Dailey said.


"It could be that some contractors by chance still have a good load of work, but it just so happens, we don't," Dailey said.


Newly married Zack Wilson, 25, said most days he could count on at least eight hours of work and a full paycheck at JRD, until a few months ago.


"It sort of slowly started slacking off," said Wilson, who also works part-time as a youth minister. "At first they tried to find other stuff for us to work on around the shop, but you can only grease something so many times."


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Associated Press writer Mick Hinton in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.



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