Ramps, Mikey, Ramps!


"Based on the $3.25 billion [in federal stimulus money] already allocated," The New York Times reports, "the city estimates that 30,776 jobs will be created by early 2011." That's a little more than $100,000 per job, a bargain compared to Obama administration estimates indicating that the cost per job "saved or created" will be more than twice that high nationwide. It's rather surprising that jobs would be so much cheaper in New York City, where everything else is more expensive.

It gets better. Last month New York Gov. David Paterson said $33.1 million for highway and bridge repair in the city would yield 794 jobs, or one for every $42,000 spent. The city says replacing ramps leading to a Staten Island ferry terminal will cost $175 million yet produce 5,000 jobs, or one for every $32,000 spent. Then again, the Times notes, "a planned railroad tunnel under the Hudson River, which will cost about 50 times as much, is supposed to produce only about 6,000 construction jobs." That's nearly $1.5 million per job. Apparently ramp repair is more than 45 times as efficient at producing jobs as tunnel building, and six times as efficient as whatever else the federal government is doing with $787 billion in stimulus money. 

Since only 100 to 200 people will be working on the ferry ramp project, how did the city come up with an estimate of 5,000 jobs? State Rep. Michael McMahon (D-Staten Island), a major booster of the project, figures "you get into the hundreds" of jobs once you consider "the ripple effect" from the money the workers spend on lunches and their bosses spend on supplies, but "I don't see how you get thousands." The city says it used a U.S. Transportation Department rule of thumb that says every $1 million spent on a transportation project yields 28 jobs, directly and indirectly. The president's Council of Economic Advisers, by contrast, says 11 is more like it. You can start to see why New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson warned Mayor Michael Bloomberg that "the effort to measure the impact of federal stimulus dollars on local labor markets is, at this point, extremely speculative."

Bear in mind that projecting jobs from discrete transportation projects should be relatively easy. The impact of various direct and indirect subsidies is even more uncertain, especially when you start talking about jobs "saved" as opposed to "created." The Times concludes that "tallying stimulus jobs is not easy in New York," but there's no reason to think it's easier anywhere else. Can we stop pretending these numbers mean anything?