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First stimulus project nears completion, job questions remain

By David Fitzpatrick, CNN Special Investigations Unit
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The first stimulus project
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Disagreement over how many jobs created from nation's first stimulus project
  • Construction of rural Missouri bidge got underway moments after stimulus plan announced
  • Critics say many more jobs could have been created with an urban project
  • Hear both sides of the issue on tonight's AC 360, CNN 10 p.m. ET
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A in-depth look at whether the nation's first stimulus project has been a success on tonigh't AC 360, 10 p.m. ET

Tuscumbia, Missouri (CNN) -- A town with a population of 218 sitting more than three hours from St. Louis would seem like an unlikely place for the nation's first stimulus project.

Yet the progress is apparent on a new $9 million bridge over the Osage River, and the span is scheduled to receive its first automobile and truck traffic sometime in midsummer. It's replacing a bridge built when Franklin Roosevelt was president on what the Missouri Department of Transportation says is the most direct link between Missouri's capitol, Jefferson City, and a large U.S. Army installation, Fort Leonard Wood.

The earth-moving equipment kicked in only minutes after President Obama signed the economic stimulus bill his administration pushed through Congress 11 months ago. Missouri's Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, was present at the first shovel turning and the state paid for a satellite truck to beam images of the ceremony to every resident of the state who wanted to see it.

State and federal officials said at that time that the bridge would create about 30 direct jobs and spin off another 220 "indirect" jobs -- supplying the steel, pouring the concrete and boosting the local community's economy.

But at the time, some politicians in Missouri's biggest cities complained that the Obama administration should have sent stimulus construction money to urban projects, rather than to an isolated bridge in a county with a very small population base. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay told CNN it was an "insult" that rural projects were at the head of the line.

When CNN cameras were there in March 2009, nearly all the work was moving dirt, creating on and off ramps and raising the level of the roadway. When CNN returned to the bridge construction site in January, three new giant supports had been embedded in the riverbed, with two more left to be finished.

Local politics seemed to have cooled down as well. The director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, Pete Rahn, told CNN that he and Slay had held "many" conversations in the past year and both are now more or less seeing eye to eye.

But the real issue is exactly how many jobs were created or saved. A year ago, the number was around 30. Today, according to Recovery.gov, the actual number is 24.69 -- a number calculated by the government based on worker time sheets.

But Rick Zimmerman, the area manager for contractor APAC-Kansas, told CNN that many of those jobs were not really "created," just transferred from another project to the Osage River bridge. Zimmerman put the number of "saved" jobs at about 10.

As for the "indirect" jobs, Rahn said his number was 240.

"It ripples out," he said. "These people all receive a paycheck. They buy from grocery stores, they eat at restaurants, they buy gasoline. And so it ripples throughout the economy."

But only a few hundred yards from where he was standing, there was a very different story.

Wes Horton owns the Red Oak Inn, the only local restaurant near the bridge. He said the town and the region needed a new bridge, no question about it. But he added that the project had provided little economic boost that he could see.

"Precious little of it rubbed off on us -- no great amount," Horton said. "You know, anytime you got people around, they always spend a little bit of money with somebody. But there sure as hell ain't no land boom around here or nothing like that."

Michael Sykuta, an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri, told CNN that a single construction job normally spins off two or perhaps three indirect jobs at most. He said the 240 spinoff jobs estimated at Tuscumbia are "nowhere near" the jobs that would have been indirectly created, even in a busy area like St. Louis.

Everyone seems to agree that the new bridge needed to be built. But to say it jump-started an economic boom in the area appears to be a bridge too far.

 
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