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Obama Offers First Look at Massive Public Works Plan to Create 2.5 Million Jobs

Governors, including Pennsylvania's Edward G. Rendell, left, have high hopes for President-elect Barack Obama's plan to create jobs through public works projects.
Governors, including Pennsylvania's Edward G. Rendell, left, have high hopes for President-elect Barack Obama's plan to create jobs through public works projects. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)

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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008

On the heels of more grim unemployment news, President-elect Barack Obama yesterday offered the first glimpse of what would be the largest public works program since President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the federal interstate system in the 1950s.

Obama said the massive government spending program he proposes to lift the country out of economic recession will include a renewed effort to make public buildings energy-efficient, rebuild the nation's highways, renovate aging schools and install computers in classrooms, extend high-speed Internet to underserved areas and modernize hospitals by giving them access to electronic medical records.

"We need to act with the urgency this moment demands to save or create at least 2 1/2 million jobs so that the nearly 2 million Americans who've lost them know that they have a future," Obama said in his weekly address, broadcast on the radio and the Internet.

Obama offered few details and no cost estimate for the investment in public infrastructure. But it is intended to be part of a broader effort to stimulate economic activity that will also include tax cuts for middle-class Americans and direct aid to state governments to forestall layoffs as programs shrink.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called for spending between $400 billion and $500 billion on the overall package. Some Senate Democrats and other economists have suggested spending even more -- potentially $1 trillion -- in the hope of jolting the economy into shape more quickly.

On Friday, the government reported that 533,000 jobs were eliminated in November, the largest one-month drop since 1974, raising unemployment to 6.7 percent. And last week, the National Bureau of Economic Research officially declared that the country has been in a recession since last December.

"We have faced difficult times before, times when our economic destiny seemed to be slipping out of our hands," Obama said. "And at each moment, we have risen to meet the challenge, as one people united by a sense of common purpose. And I know that Americans can rise to the moment once again."

Governors praised Obama's proposals, saying their states stand ready with billions of dollars' worth of road and school projects that could be started quickly with an infusion of federal cash. At a meeting with Obama in Philadelphia last week, governors estimated that there are $136 billion worth of projects that are "ready to go" once money rolls in.

"Here in Virginia, we have more than a billion dollars in ready-to-go bridge, highway, rail, transit, port and airport projects that have been through appropriate local, regional and state planning processes and that can be under contract within 180 days," Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said in a statement.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said the plan would "help keep people employed and create new jobs, [and] it would allow us to deliver infrastructure improvements that will last beyond the immediate economic crisis and benefit generations to come."

In keeping with the secrecy that surrounds the development of his recovery plan, Obama has given the governors no commitment about how much money they would receive for such projects. But Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D), chairman of the National Governors Association, said yesterday that he is not worried.

"Is it going to be big or little? It's going to be big," Rendell said. "I have no doubt that it's going to be substantial. [Obama] didn't blink an eye when we talked about $136 billion."


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