It pays to pinch pennies, even when spending millions.

One upside of a down economy is that the state of Missouri has been saving money on highway projects, meaning work is getting done to improve the state’s economy, workers are staying on the job and it’s not costing quite as much as had been budgeted.

Oh, we’re still paying a steep price. Much of this is from federal stimulus money, funds that Uncle Sam is borrowing and will have to pay back, with interest. As a rule, that’s not a great idea. But economic stimulus is the order of the day – there’s a strong argument for that – and it’s best to at least get our money’s worth.

The Missouri Department of Transportation says in the fiscal year that just ended it awarded 461 contracts for road and bridge projects at a cost of $1.3 billion. That’s 9 percent under budget. Apparently contractors are feeling the squeeze too, and MoDOT says it presses them to cut costs to the bone.

About 100 of those 461 MoDOT projects are being paid for with federal stimulus money. Missouri still has a significant backlog of roads and bridges needing repair, renovation or replacement, but that means the state has plenty of work that’s “shovel ready” when the money spigot is turned on. Again, that’s not the ideal situation, but at least the state is able to capitalize on these opportunities and do so in a cost-effective manner.

MoDOT says the money saved goes right back into the next project on the list. Eventually, that long to-do list might get down to a reasonable, manageable length.