WASHINGTON - The billions in transportation stimulus dollars that President Barack Obama promoted as a way to create jobs shortchange counties that need the work the most, an Associated Press analysis has found.
The AP's review of more than 5,500 planned transportation projects nationwide is the most complete picture available of where states plan to spend the first wave of highway money. It reveals that states are planning to spend 50 percent more per person in areas with the lowest unemployment than in communities with the highest. The Transportation Department said it will attempt to replicate the AP's analysis as it continues pressing states to dole out money fairly.
One result among many: Elk County, Pa., isn't receiving any road money despite its 13.8 percent unemployment rate. Yet the military and college community of Riley County, Kan., with 3.4 percent unemployment, will benefit from about $56 million to build a highway, improve an intersection and restore a historic farmhouse.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the findings don't mean that the neediest communities will not benefit.
''Just because a road project is in one part of one county doesn't mean the benefits of those jobs created or the economic impact of that spending is simply isolated to that one area,'' he said.
Others responded to the analysis Monday with concerns about the way the administration has represented stimulus spending and its effect on areas hardest hit by unemployment.
''To some extent, I think the administration oversold the transportation aspect of this,'' said Jim Berard, spokesman for Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. ''It was sold as the heart and soul of the package, and it really just isn't.''
The AP reviewed $18.9 billion in projects. They account for about half of the money set aside for states and local governments to spend on roads, bridges and infrastructure in the stimulus plan.
The list of the first wave of stimulus money includes $3.7 million for Chautauqua County for, apparently, the Washington Street bridge project in Jamestown and to resurface Interstate 86 from Sherman to Bemus Point, and $5.6 million to resurface the eastbound lanes of I 86 in parts of Cattaraugus County.
The very promise that Obama made, to spend money quickly and create jobs, is locking out many struggling communities needing those jobs.
The money goes to projects ready to start. But many struggling communities don't have projects waiting. They couldn't afford the millions of dollars for preparation and plans that often is required.
''It's not fair,'' said Martin Schuller, the borough manager in the Elk County seat of Ridgway, who commiserates about the inequity in highway aid with colleagues in nearby towns. ''It's a joke because we're not going to get it, because we don't have any projects ready to go.''
The AP examined the earliest projects announced nationwide, the ones most likely to break ground and create jobs first. More projects are continually being announced, and some areas that received little or no help so far may benefit later. The Obama administration could also encourage states to change their plans.
To determine whether there was a disparity in where the money would go, the AP divided the nation's counties into four groups by unemployment levels. The analysis found that, no matter how the early money is measured, communities suffering most fare the worst:
High-unemployment counties, those in the top quarter of jobless rates, are allotted about 16 percent of the money, compared with about 20 percent for areas least affected by joblessness.
In low-unemployment counties nationwide, those in the bottom quarter of jobless rates, the federal government is spending about $89 a person compared with $59 a person in the worst-hit areas.
In counties with the largest populations, the government is spending about $69 a person in areas with the lowest unemployment and $40 a person in places with the greatest job need.
Counties with the highest unemployment are most likely to have been passed over completely in the early spending.
Among them: Wheeler County, Ore.; Steuben County, Ind.; Macon County, Ga.; and Crowley County, Colo.
Many others are getting minimal help in this round: Vermillion County, Ind.; Lapeer County, Mich.; Presidio County, Texas; Tallahatchi County, Miss.
Republicans cited the analysis Monday as another example of what's wrong with Obama's economic stimulus program.
''The problem comes from the fact that the bill was not written right in the first place,'' said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. ''And the bill not addressing where the money is needed to go, but just addressing, 'Let's get this money out of here as quickly as we can.'''
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood defended the transportation stimulus plan Monday. Even if needy areas don't see transportation projects this year, workers can still apply for jobs elsewhere, he said.
''When it's all said and done, you're going to see an enormous number of people working on these projects this summer,'' he said.
But that's not a solution for many of the unemployed who don't have a way to travel an hour or more in rural areas for the work, said Nancy Hetrick, a volunteer Salvation Army caseworker who works with the needy in Elk County, Pa.
''If they have cars they'll go, but a lot of people don't have cars. A lot of them can't afford to have cars on the road right now,'' Hetrick said. ''Elk County can stand to use this job right here in the county itself.''
The early trend seen in the AP analysis runs counter to expectations raised by Obama, that road and infrastructure money from the historic $787 billion stimulus plan would create jobs in areas most devastated by layoffs. Transportation money, he said, would mean paychecks for ''folks looking for work'' and ''folks who want to work.''
''That's the core of my plan, putting people to work doing the work that America needs done,'' Obama said in a Feb. 11 speech promoting transportation spending as a way to expand employment.
Elizabeth Oxhorn, a spokeswoman for the White House recovery effort, said Monday that transportation money is only part of a stimulus package that will benefit ''as many Americans as possible.''
''Different programs under the Recovery Act are targeted differently, and looking at them in isolation is misleading and incomplete,'' she said.
Also, Congress required states to use some of the highway money for projects in economically distressed areas, but didn't impose sanctions if they didn't. States can lose money, however, if they don't spend fast enough.
Joel Szabat, who also oversees the stimulus for the Transportation Department, said the agency presses states to build projects in struggling areas but does not normally consider how much money is going to each county.
Presented with AP's findings, he said: ''I will be going back to ask our folks to do this kind of analysis, the overall amount for the projects.''
Obama's stimulus package sends $38 billion to states and local governments for roads, bridges, transit and other infrastructure, about 5 percent of the overall program that also includes money for, among other things, schools, community development, technology, worker training and tax breaks.
All counties will receive some stimulus relief eventually. But the haste voiced by the White House is not reflected in the flow of highway money so far.
''We cannot wait,'' Vice President Joe Biden said last week when announcing a $30 million transit project in his hometown of Wilmington, Del., where the 7.7 percent unemployment rate remains below the national average. ''We're spending a lot of time and money. Why? It's about ... jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs. That's why we cannot wait.''
Yet residents of Perry County, Tenn., will have to wait. County Mayor John Carroll said he's disappointed his community, which suffers from 25.4 percent unemployment, won't receive a dime any time soon for its road needs.
''It's pretty easy to draw a connection between the high unemployment rate and the lack of any four-lane highways,'' he said.
Federal auditors acknowledge they can't yet track the transportation money that is leaving Washington and there is no single list of the thousands of projects planned in each state. For its analysis, the AP used lists of projects approved through March by the Transportation Department and collected lists of stimulus projects that have been announced in 49 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Federal officials have approved 2,800 projects. The remaining projects on the AP list represent the states' official plans for the money. Only Virginia, which has not announced its plan, is not included.
In promoting his plan, Obama went to hard-hit communities such as Elkhart, Ind., and Peoria, Ill., and promised the jobs would come.
''Now, I know that some of you might be thinking, 'Well that all sounds good, but when are we going to see any of that here in Elkhart?''' Obama said. '''What does all that mean for our families and our community?' Those are exactly the kind of questions you should be asking of your president and your government.''
Obama kept his promise to Elkhart, which so far is expected to receive $13.7 million, and Peoria, which should receive at least $10.6 million. But other, similar counties have not been so lucky.
For now, laid-off workers in Elk County, Pa., question why they've missed out, while money flows to more prosperous places.
''Why are they helping them?'' asked Wendy Cameron, 50, of Saint Marys, Pa., who lost her job in a metal factory last year. She doesn't have health insurance and would gladly take road work. ''They're not in need. We are.
''What are these people going to do? Is everybody going to go on welfare? I've never been on welfare. I don't want to be on welfare.''