Slowly, long-promised federal dollars are beginning to trickle down the government pipeline, bringing hundreds of new construction jobs on sorely wanted public works projects for Washington and scattered towns in outlying areas.
The number of jobs being channeled into Washington appears relatively small so far. None of the work here has apparently yet begun, and whether it will significantly reduce the area's unemployment remains an open question.
Soon, however, local government officials say, some of the money that entered the federal pipeline months ago will emerge in the paychecks of construction workers who will be hired to renovate Washington's old Eastern Market, repave streets in Anacostia, enlarge the overcrowded municipal building in Greenbelt and build a community center in the small Prince George's County town of Morningside near Andrews Air Force Base.
Billions of dollars more, government officials say, will soon be pumped into the pipeline, nationally, offering further promise of jobs and public works here.
Yet the hints of economic uplift in the Washington area, as across the nation, are already mixed with frustration, discouragement and controversy over the way the federal money flows through the pipeline and where it comes out in the end. While the District of Columbia and Prince George's County have already won a share of the funds, wealthier Montgomery County and Northern Virginia have not. The odds, some officials say, are still against them.
Since last year, the pipeline has been carrying $2 billion in federal aid for local governments throughout the United States for public works projects, including municipal office buildings, court houses, libraries, schools, sewer lines and streets. The money was meant to reduce unemployment in the construction industry and finance projects that could not otherwise be built. The funds were provided by Congress over President Ford's veto.
Acting on part of President Carter's economic stimulus package, the House voted last week to authorize another $4 billion in public works aid, intended to create 600,000 more jobs nationally. The Senate is expected to act on its version of the measure later this month. Then differences between the House and Senate bills will have to be reconciled. Afterwards, the funds must be appropriated in separate legislation, which will send the new money into the pipeline.
In the Washington area, the District of Columbia is expected to remain the main beneficiary of the pipeline's dollars. According to figures available from Congress and the Commerce Department last week, the District is due to gain $10 million from last year's measure and another $30 million under the House-approved bill.
Prince George's County is to receive about $5.5 million as its share of Maryland's $20.2 million allotment under the 1976 legislation. Some Prince George's officials say they are worried that a new federal formula for splitting up the funds may dampen the county's chances of gaining a major slice of Maryland's next allocation estimated at $59.8 million under the House-passed bill. Montgomery County apparently faces even stiffer odds.
None of Virginia's $21.8 million share of last year's money was routed to the state's northern counties and cities, and few applications from Northern Virginia are pending. Virginia as a whole is expected to gain another $64.8 million under the House-approved bill.
One of those most discouraged by Northern Virginia's lack of luck is Arlington County Manager W. Vernon Ford, who saw five applications for federal public works grants turned down. "Don't count on the feds for anything but rules," Ford remarked glumly last week.
The projects awarded federal aid so far have been chosen through a complex Commerce Department formula that stressed high unemployment, low per capita income and job-creating potential. Local governments seeking grants were permitted to include in their applications some neighboring communities from which they might draw unemployed workers, allowing Prince George's County, for example, to lay claim to adjoining low-income sections of the District. Such gerry-mandering may be barred under this year's legislation.
In the District, special steps have been taken in an attempt to channel the money from the federal pipeline into the pockets of the unemployed. Terry Peel, capital improvements director in the city's budget office, said last week that city contracts will require all construction contractors and subcontractors under the program to make efforts to hire jobless construction workers, mainly by checking the city's unemployment rolls. Compliance with this provision will be monitored by city officials, Peel said.
It remains unclear, nevertheless, whether such contract requirements can be fully enforced and, in a broader sense, whether the federally financed public works projects can make a sizeable dent in Washington's unemployment rate.
The number of unemployed persons in the Washington area averaged 75,000 last year, including 30,000 District residents, according to local government statistics. The unemployment rate averaged 9.1 per cent in the District and 5.2 per cent in the metropolitan Washington area as a whole. While government unemployment statistics were not compiled for the local construction industry, available data indicated that at least several thousand construction workers are unemployed in the District alone.
The first $10 million in U.S. aid for the District will provide 517 jobs for construction workers, city officials say. Work on these projects is expected to start in April. Further aid to the District, as a result of the measures still pending in Congress, will probably yield 1,000 or more additional construction jobs, officials say.
One key D.C. official, who asked not to be identified, said last week that the federally financed public works projects would probably have little immediate effect on local unemployment, though their impact in stimulting the area's economy might be greater through the purchase of construction equipment and materials.
Officials in the District and Prince George's County said the money from the federal pipeline will permit them to carry out severely needed construction projects that would otherwise have to be postponed or abandoned because of tight budgets and public opposition to tax increases.
In the District, capital improvement director Peel noted, the initial $10 million in federal grants represents much larger saving in city trust. If the D.C. government were to borrow money to finance the same [WORD ILLEGIBLE] he said, longterm charges would bring total costs to about $20 million. By starting work on the projects this year, Peel added, the city also may avoid delays that would resulting higher costs because of inflation.
The initial $10 million in public work grants, city officials say, will be sent for street improvements in the Fairlawn section of Anacostia, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and other renovation at Eastern Market on 7th Street, SE, further improvement of the recreation park known as National Children's Island at Kerman Lake near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium and park development in the Shaw and 14th Street urban renewal areas.
The money will also be used to build retaining wall intended to control erosion and protect about 30 houses along O Street SE between Bram Avenue and Carpenter Street, for rehabilitation of the Valley Greenland Highland Addition public housing projects in Southeast, and for excession of the "street for people" landscaping and redevelopment project in 8th Street NW.
[WORD ILLEGIBLE] officials are now studying proposal for spending the additional U.S. aid expected later this year, ranging from school modernization to sewer construction.
The largest Prince George's County project that has so far been alloted a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] public works grant will be carried out at Prince George's General Hospital at Cheverly. The hospital's $33 million U.S. grant will help finance new parking facilities and a mermized laundry system. The project scheduled to start in April, will provide 126 construction jobs, officials say.
General funds have also been alloted for public works projects in southern Prince George's towns and cities as Capitol Heights, Colmar Maryland Seat Pleasant.
Like many local officials who are starting to see money trickle from the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] pipeline, Greenbelt's mayor, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] says his city of 20,000 residents is grateful for its $282,860 [WORD ILLEGIBLE] grant. It will be spent to expand the city's crowded municipal building to accommodate its police, finance office, administrative staff and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] bureau. "We desperately need it." Weidenfeld said, "but we didn't have the finances to do it ourselves." CAPTION: Picture, Some $300,000 has been earmarked for the much needed renovation of Eastern Market at 225 7th St. SE. By Charles Del Vecchio - The Washington Post