Union Democrat staff

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the Stimulus Bill, early this year was seen as the job-creating lifeline that would rescue the country from the worst recession in decades.

With record unemployment rates in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, "Build it and they will work" seemed like the mantra of the day.

A half-year later, however, local unemployment rates are still at record levels and climbing: In Calaveras County, joblessness has jumped from 13.4 to 14. 2 percent since January. Tuolumne's has risen from 12.1 to 12.7 percent in the same period.

Despite signs the national economy is on the mend, there is little encouraging here in the foothills. "Dismal" was the word from Diane Gray, executive director of the Calaveras Chamber of Commerce.

The down-and-out construction industry and the mothballing of Sierra Pacific Industries Standard Mill haven't helped. Neither have the closure of Mervyns and Gottschalks in Sonora.

But what about those economy-saving, "shovel-ready" stimulus projects that were supposed to put us all back to work? Hasn't a virtual smorgasbord of federally funded jobs been set in front of us?

Well, yes. But for the most part we haven't been able to eat yet. We aren't alone: Less than $100 billion of the $787 billion allotted in President Obama's bill has actually been spent since its passage in February.

So what happened?

The fate of Tuolumne County's $4 million La Grange Road resurfacing job may offer a clue. If anything was shovel ready, it was this 12.5-mile job. It involves only grinding down the existing cracked and potholed pavement, then covering it with a new layer of pavement. With no widening, no turn lanes, no ramps, this project sticks to the existing road's footprint.

Slam dunk, right? Wrong: Months' worth of hurdles were thrown up, including weeks of environmental review. Although this protracted re-examination revealed no problems, funding still has not come through for the La Grange job and further delays could push construction into 2010.

Could this be happening with the other 3,000 stimulus road projects nationwide? Is paralysis by analysis hitting us when we least need it? Maybe it's force of habit. Maybe our larger bureacracies have been doing things the same way for so long they can't change.

Such hurdles and delays undermine the stimulus bill's purpose, shunting jobs needed now into the indefinite future. Projects like La Grange Road, both for the sake of economy and of the road's users, should be fast-tracked.

Do we in the Mother Lode have a lot at stake? Indeed.

Proposed stimulus projects in the area include a nine-mile repaving job on Highway 49 north of Sonora (just under way), a $4 million sewer treatment plant in Angels Camp, $3.5 million in trail construction and other projects on the Stanislaus National Forest, a $4 million overhaul of the Big Hill water system, $2.7 million to bring high-speed Internet to remote Tuolumne and Calaveras County areas, $400,000 for two Tuolumne County trolley buses, $7.5 million for Calaveras County Water District and San Andreas Sanitary District projects, millions for a siesmic retrofit of the historic Ahwahnee Hotel and more.

A few of these projects themselves may be debatable, but one thing is not: The sooner the jobs are funded and workers are hired, the better.