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What's the Hold-Up? Shovel-Ready Projects Await Stimulus Funding

There has been quite a bit of newsprint, bandwidth and hot air invested in whether the Obama Administration might push for a second stimulus package.

Stimulus Scorecard
Stimulus Scorecard

The conventional wisdom is that jobs are still going away too quickly, and that there's nothing on the horizon to indicate that the dynamic will appreciably change in the near-term.

Republicans nearly scoff at the possibility, while Democrats likely want the help, but in a mid-term election year, the phrase "stimulus package" won't be making it into any speeches on the stump.

But when you look at the current stimulus package — aka the Recovery Act — it's a bit of a head scratcher, considering so little of it has been spent.

Let's take a look at the big picture: According to information aggregated by recovery.gov, of the $499 billion in stimulus funds slated for spending —contracts, grants, loans and entitlements — only $251 billion has been made available. Of that amount, just $107 billion had been paid out as of September 30. That’s less than a quarter of the overall number.

Even on the tax-relief side, there’s a lot left on the table. The Office of the Treasury estimates that $62.5 billion in tax relief had been made available by the end of the August. This is just 22-percent out of the $288-billion in the Recovery Act.

It all begs the question: What's the hold up?

In many cases, while funds have been assigned to specific projects, the plan was designed to support them over the entire life of those projects, whether they're completed in one year or five. For example, the Department of Transportation has $48.1 billion for highway, road, transit, bridge and airport construction and repairs. The DOT has committed $29 billion of those funds to 9,400 projects, but just over $3 billion of has been drawn down as these projects ramp up.

In other cases, federal agencies are still going through the process of allocating grant funds. While companies and states have applied for the $4.5 billion smart grid program and the $8 billion high-speed rail program, the decisions on who gets that money are still weeks away — if not months.

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Sources at the Department of Energy and the Department of Transportation tell CNBC that all of these programs are heavily oversubscribed. In fact, for the high-speed rail money, $57 billion worth of work came in during the application process, and this is for $8 billion in actual appropriated money. The demand for government dollars is clogging the process.

"Due to the overwhelming response and our desire to lay the groundwork for a truly national high-speed and intercity passenger rail program, we will be announcing awards this winter, said Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph C. Szabo.

When dealing with billions of dollars and a large bureaucratic system, even many so-called "shovel-ready" projects have been slow to move forward.

The Obama administration has argued that patience is needed before judging the impact of the Recovery Act, although if more measures to spark job growth are being discussed, the White House must be anxious, even with all that’s left to be spent.

And the conservatives find no solace, even if much of the appropriated money is yet to be spent. “Realistically, with Obama in the White House and the Democrats with overwhelming control of the House and Senate, there is no way to un-do the damage,” said Dan Mitchell of the Cato Institute. “The money hasn't been spent, but so what.”

Be sure to get in touch with us: stimulus@cnbc.com

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