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In her keynote speech at the Tea Party Convention on Feb. 6, 2010, Sarah Palin mocked some of the spending in the massive economic stimulus championed by President Barack Obama.
"One state even spent a million bucks to put up signs that advertise that they were spending on the federal stimulus projects," Palin said. "Or as someone put it, this was a million-dollar effort using your money to tell you it's spending your money. And it didn't create a single job."
Many stimulus projects are simply wasteful, she said.
"And in the case of those signs," she said, "kind of ridiculous."
The state in question here is clearly Ohio, which has been the subject of recent press reports on the subject. And the issue is over road signs along stimulus-funded highway projects that state: "Putting America to Work. Project Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act."
The stimulus' implementation guidelines from the Federal Highway Administration "strongly encourages" (but does not require) the signs "to make it easier for Americans to see which projects are funded by the ARRA." The guidelines also provide precise details on the form and content of the sign and recovery logo. As far back as July, a number of Republican legislators, and some Democrats, criticized the signs as wasteful. Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, mocking the red, blue and green logo of the stimulus, went so far as to label the signs “stimulus hype propaganda sporting the mark of the porkulus beast."
As a result of the public pressure, a number of states balked at the federal recommendation to erect stimulus signs.
Ohio was not one of them.
The signs became something of a pet peeve of Republican Ohio state Sen. Tim Grendell, who drove daily past stimulus signs on both sides of a highway resurfacing project near his home. Grendell's complaints were aired in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Sept. 9, 2009, along with the paper's estimate that the signs could cost up to $1 million in Ohio.
But a more recent Jan. 26, 2010, report on CNN may also have caught Palin's attention. CNN also cited the $1 million price tag and attributed the figure to Grendell.
So we called Grendell.
He called the signs "self-congratulatory spin for the federal government and the Obama administration" and said the money could be better spent on many other worthy highway projects in Ohio. "It's a total waste of public dollars," he said.
As for the $1 million figure, Grendell said he got that estimate from an Ohio Department of Transportation official when he called to complain about the signs.
Since then, Grendell said he spoke to a company that rents some of the signs, and that they go for as much as $3,000 apiece. And with one on each side of a road project, that can run $6,000 per project.
Scott Varner, a spokesman with the Ohio Department of Transportation, called the $1 million figure "inaccurate," although he said the state has no way of knowing the precise figure.
The cost is rolled into the expense of all the construction signs in a construction zone, he said.
The $1 million estimate, he said, is based on a "high-end" estimate of the cost of a sign ($2,000 to $3,000 apiece), multiplied by the number of projects. The cost of signs varies from project to project, he said, but the ODOT estimated the cost of a large sign at about $1,000 to $1,300 per sign (with the bulk of the cost in labor for installation and removal).
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.
The $1 million estimate in Ohio also assumes two signs per project, Varner said, and the reality is that many projects only got one sign; and many didn't get one at all. The estimate is also based on the cost of a large sign for interstate projects. Smaller, less expensive signs are used for city projects, he said.
"That $1 million figure is at best on the high end," Varner said. "It's not a true number." It is more likely "significantly under that."
The complaints by Grendell, and more recently Palin, also ignore the value of the signs, Varner said. Ohio placed a high priority on transparency and accountability with regard to stimulus projects, he said.
"What better way to let people know where the stimulus dollars are being spent," he said.
CNN polled other states and found at least 16 that are skipping the signs and putting the money toward road projects instead.
One of the states that has opted against the signs is Vermont. In a blog posting, the state's chief recovery officer, Tom Evslin, said, "Here in Vermont we decided that we'd rather spend the stimulus highway dollars on roads than signs." All of the state's stimulus projects are listed on a state Web site, he said. "The Web is cheaper than signs."
We think it's accurate for Palin to describe the signs as advertisements for spending on stimulus projects. That's exactly the point of them. We'll leave it up to legislators and the American public to decide whether that's an appropriate use of stimulus funds. But we can say the $1 million figure for signs in Ohio is suspect and appears to be a back-of-the-envelope estimate, rather than a hard fact. Ohio transportation officials said the total for signs is likely significantly lower than that. But neither Palin nor ODOT (nor anyone else for that matter) can cite an exact figure. And so we rate Palin's claim Half True.
YouTube, Video: Sarah Palin's Keynote Speech at the Tea Party convention (about the 3 minute mark), Feb. 6, 2010
CNN, "Signs of waste? $1 million used to tout stimulus funds at work in Ohio," by Randi Kaye, Jan. 26, 2010
Cleveland Plain Dealer, "Ohio could spend $1 million on signs marking stimulus-funded roadwork," by Melodie Smith, Sept. 9, 2009
Fractals of Chage, blog of Tom Evslin, Vermont's Chief Recovery Officer, "Where are the Signs?"
U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration Web site, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Implementing Guidance, Updated April 1, 2009
PolitiFact.com. "Bennett says stimulus is spending too much on road signs promoting stimulus," by Louis Jacobson, July 17, 2009
Interview with Scott Varner, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation, Feb. 8, 2010
Interview with Ohio State Sen. Tim Grendell, Feb. 8, 2010
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