Critics of the $787 billion economic stimulus package are up in arms about a particularly visible reminder of the legislation: roadway signs that are sprouting up across the nation, touting construction projects funded by the bill.
In June, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., included the signs as an example of questionable spending in his report, “100 Stimulus Projects: A Second Opinion.” In July, Rep. Chris Lee, R-N.Y., issued a statement saying that the signs are “just the most recent in a series of examples demonstrating how dollars from the stimulus are being wasted or misspent.” Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, mocking the red, blue and green logo of the stimulus, has gone so far as to label the signs “stimulus hype propaganda sporting the mark of the porkulus beast." Democrats, such as Rep. Dan Maffei of New York, have even joined the chorus of critics.
On July 15, 2009, Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., took aim at stimulus-touting signs with an amendment that “would prohibit the use of stimulus funds to pay for signage promoting the administration's spending of taxpayer dollars on (stimulus) projects.” (The amendment has not yet been taken up by the Senate.)
In a statement announcing the amendment, Sen. Bennett asserted that “the administration is wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on a PR campaign.”
We’ll leave it to others to decide whether spending stimulus money on roadside signs is worthwhile. Instead, we’ll look at whether the senator’s assertion is accurate. This requires breaking his statement into two parts.
The first portion of Bennett’s statement — his assumption that “the administration” is the primary actor in the signage drama — isn’t entirely correct.
It’s true that the federal government is providing the stimulus money for these highway construction projects. It’s also true that the U.S. Department of Transportation has issued three versions of guidance on stimulus-related signs, saying that states are “strongly encouraged” to post the signs.
But the department did not make the signs mandatory, and news reports indicate that Texas, Florida and Virginia have opted not to post the signs. Indeed, the feds have delegated most of the responsibility for carrying out stimulus efforts to the states, from choosing the projects to negotiating the contracts. If states want to put stimulus money to uses other than signs, they may do so.
The other portion of Bennett’s assertion has to do with whether “millions” of dollars are being spent on these signs. That number is not easy to nail down. Stimulus spending is decentralized and the states have broad discretion; there’s also no specific budget line for signs. No one — including the U.S. Transportation Department — knows for sure how much is being spent on these signs.
So we did some calculations to create our own estimate. We found that it's possible that spending on stimulus signs has reached into the millions, but it’s no certainty.
One of the challenges in making this determination is the large variation in the cost of a sign. In July, the Associated Press reported that Michigan estimated a sign costs $400 to $500. Illinois officials suggested $300 for the sign and an additional $700 when labor is included, while Colorado officials said materials plus labor would run between $750 and $1,200 per sign.
Other estimates ran the gamut. The Tennessean newspaper reported that the cost in its state was $38 per sign from one vendor and $55.16 from another. In New York state, the estimates have been far pricier. The Syracuse Post-Standard reported that published engineering instructions had the largest signs running between $6,000 and $8,300, with smaller versions costing $3,600 to $4,800 and the smallest sizes costing $1,600 to $2,100. After a spate of bad publicity over those numbers, the state Department of Transportation first lowered its costs, according to a spokesman, and then on July 17, 2009, issued an engineering directive suspending the installation of the signs altogether, pending further advice from the U.S. DOT.
Meanwhile, in his statement, Bennett himself cited figures of $1,700 per sign in Georgia, $2,000 per sign in Pennsylvania and $3,000 per project in New Jersey. He did not provide sourcing and his office did not return a call and an e-mail.
So, excluding the now-dated New York prices, the cost of a single sign ranged from $38 to $2,000, or perhaps $3,000 on the extreme.
According to the U.S. DOT, there were 1,995 stimulus-funded highway projects that had “notices to proceed” as of July 10. Many, but likely not all, of these were far enough along to be ready to host a sign, according to DOT. The actual number of signs posted so far is probably lower than that, DOT added, once you eliminate the states that aren’t posting signs at all and the sites that do not yet have signs erected.
So, whether stimulus signage is costing “millions,” as Bennett suggests, depends heavily on what you assume to be the prevailing national price of making and posting a sign.
Assuming one sign per project and an average installation cost of $1,000 — and without reducing the total number of sites lower than the full 1,995 — the total would be just under $2 million spent for signs, which is the bare minimum for Bennett to be accurate in saying “millions.” Any lower cost per sign would mean that the senator was exaggerating.
So let's read the signs for the Truth-O-Meter. The first part of his statement is a stretch because the federal government doesn't actually mandate the signs and some states have opted out. But it's clear the feds are encouraging the signs. The second part of his statement appears to be just in the ballpark based on an average cost of $1,000, but it's an exaggeration if the cost is lower. Add it up and we've got a Half True.