What is ‘shovel-ready’?

When Obama suddenly needed to inject money into the economy in early 2009, he told his people to cast about and find “shovel-ready municipal and state projects” ready to go. 

What did they find? Almost 95 percent of the proposed public programs and projects were at the “approved for study” stage and did not qualify.  

Since 2009, the federal government has been warning, cajoling, encouraging local governments — and that means your townships, county and state leaders — to actually do their job, spend the necessary seed money to study, plan and approve projects desperately in need. Study? Done. Planning & design? Done. Environmental impact? Done. Local political approval? Done. That’s the previous definition of shovel-ready.

And let’s face it, we all know of projects on a back burner because people think “Why waste my time, we’ll never find the money; we’re desperate but not foolish to waste time and effort… .”

How desperate? Thirty-five percent of the septic systems in the country need updating or — as in the case of some of the rural townships (you know who you are) — finally getting a septic system in place. Forty percent of the bridges and elevated roadways in the country are in need of serious maintenance or replacement. Twenty-eight percent of the airports, 22 percent of the ports (and channels), 16 percent  of the highways, 63 percent  of the rail track and systems — all these and more are behind in development, repair, maintenance, or renewal.

Now, in comes a new administration promising to renew America’s infrastructure (something all political sides seem to agree on). Using the playbook developed over the past eight years under Obama, the incumbent’s team took a look at the list of “shovel-ready” projects across the nation and quickly realized that most townships, county government and state governments — not to mention federally owned infrastructure under DOT or DOD — have not prepared, have not invested time and expertise to get anything ready.

So what does this administration do? They throw it open to the commercial sector. “Got anything shovel-ready?”

“Oh! Yes we do!” is the overwhelming cry.

“We’ve got new planes,” (Boeing), “we want to develop to retake world leadership in aviation. Shovel-ready, you ask? We have a 10-stage program, the first stage is shovel-ready, please send us cash.”  


The first stage is prototype design and testing. Jobs? Sure. Promise of future jobs? Really good. Promise of benefit to the nation? Really good as well. Profit for Wall Street? Perfect.

“We’ve got American’s first high-speed rail train, ready to get rolling in Texas!” And they do, it’s on paper (so far) and all they need is “Stage one is ready to roll, political and local environmental impact approvals…. Please send cash so we can get going!” 

Promise of future jobs? Pretty good (the trains are made in France, but they will solve that by having them “assembled” in the USA). The eminent domain stealing (sorry, buying) people’s land? Pretty much assured if stage one works out… .

And so on. So why haven’t governments up and down our country learned anything? Why haven’t our town and cities, counties and states learned from industry? 

If you spend one day in a meeting in a small town and write “Stage One —Septic System For Our Town” on a piece of paper and then simply list what that stage is, then approve it in town session … presto, you have a shovel-ready project. 

Stage Two will be developed during Stage One — environmental impact, architect/engineer drawings (not final), citizen approval. Go get more cash for that shovel-ready project. 

Stage Three is developed during Stage Two, final drawings, land acquisition, shovel ceremony. Go get more cash. 

Stage Four is developed out of Stage Three, building the darn thing. Go get more cash. Four shovel-ready projects. Not one, stand-alone, take-it-or-leave-it project plan, no huge investment up front. Like any commercial enterprise, you can build one brick at a time — and go get the cash before it is all gone.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.