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A driving force in road construction

Spain's infrastructure giants prepare Madrid for the Olympics, and eye Obama's stimulus money.

People pass by a construction site in downtown Madrid on June 2, 2009. The number of dole seekers in Spain finally began to fall this summer after the government injected billions into public works, creating hundreds of thousands of short-term construction jobs across the country. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

MADRID — Taking a stroll down the streets of Madrid, wading through dust and talking over the drone of jackhammers at construction sites, one would never guess at the lull in Spain's construction sector.

Optimism, too, seems to be the word of the day for infrastructure giants with their sights on prospects abroad — specifically in the United States, where stimulus money is ripe for the picking.

For months, construction workers have been busily widening sidewalks and revamping plazas around the capital of Madrid in a push to prep the city for what they hope will be the 2016 Olympic Games. Madrid is one of four cities worldwide currently vying to be the host of the 2016 summer games. The International Olympic Committee will select a winning city in October.

“The games are a catalyst,” said Antonio Fernandez Arimany, managing director of Madrid’s 2016 Candidate City program.

The official bid lists $23 billion in projects to be completed before the Olympics, though it has taken an additional, one-time injection of nearly $47 billion this year to first bring the construction sector back to life. The cash infusion has been dubbed “Plan E” — E for employment — by the administration of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and large billboards sporting the slogan can be seen around the country.

And it’s not just on their home turf that Spanish infrastructure companies stand to benefit from a cash infusion. Many have set their sights on U.S. President Barack Obama’s stimulus plans, something many believe the Spanish are in a unique position to benefit from given the recent history of their infrastructure expertise — and the fact that they've already got their foot in the door. “[The U.S.] is potentially the largest construction and infrastructure market in the world, head-to-head with China,” said Mauro F. Guillen, director of the Wharton School’s Lauder Institute, which is a dual-degree program combining business and international studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Guillen foresees the U.S. spending more than $500 billion a year for the next two decades on public works.

“Spanish firms stand to benefit from the [U.S. government’s] spending because they have a demonstrated record of success,” he said, adding that many Spanish companies surpass their American counterparts.

Boston’s Big Dig took nearly two decades to complete at five times the intended cost of $2.6 billion, he mentioned, while a project of similar scale was undertaken in Madrid less than five years. “It would be foolish for the U.S. not to benefit from [Spanish companies’] expertise,” he concluded.