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President-elect Obama is correct to liken an infrastructure stimulus to Eisenhower’s historic initiative to create the Interstate Highway system. That endeavor set the patterns for America’s car-dominated transportation network and suburban growth throughout the second half of the twentieth century. The coming stimulus similarly presents a tremendous opportunity to advance transportation goals for the twenty-first century.
It is critically important how infrastructure stimulus money gets spent. It is not enough to simply spend money. Nor should Congress assume that more transportation is always better. As many have pointed out, America’s transportation system isn’t just broke; it’s also broken. In fact, transportation contributes to many of America’s most pressing problems. Consider:
- Each year Americans waste billions of dollars and millions of hours stuck in traffic – a problem that is often made worse by construction of new highways.
- Our transportation system is also the chief source of our nation’s addition to oil, consuming two our of every three barrels, and leaving our nation vulnerable to volatile prices and hostile foreign regimes.
- Cars and trucks are the biggest end-user source of global warming pollution. We will not succeed in reducing these emissions unless we allow Americans to reduce the number of miles they drive.
- Finally, too many transportation projects like Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” have been embarrassing boondoggles that erode confidence in government and divert dollars from more productive uses.
Clearly, not every infrastructure dollar is equally good for the public interest. As state Departments of Transportation eagerly offer lists of favored projects, how should Congress and the Obama administration decide?
There needs to be a commitment to spend for results rather than simply to inject dollars. The reason that there is such wide consensus that our national transportation system is dysfunctional is because the current system primarily collects gas taxes from the states and then pumps those dollars back based on outdated formulas forged by political compromises that had nothing to do with achieving national goals. For decades, the federal government has spent billions of dollars on highway projects with little evaluation and no accountability. That must change. Spending is not based on allocating dollars where they will yield the greatest results. There are not even clear goals for what the transportation system should accomplish.
Thus the next Congress should should spend taxpayers’ money more wisely by focusing transportation dollars on solving our nation’s biggest problems. Federal transportation money should be spent only on projects that produce real results over the long haul – for example, by reducing our dependence on oil, curbing global warming pollution, alleviating congestion, improving safety, and supporting healthy, sustainable communities.
A rough guide for what that change looks like can likened to the difference between the early Detroit bailout requests and the emerging counter proposals. Rather than simply throw more money toward continuing failure, the emerging consensus seems to be that funds most go toward a fundamental shift in the business model and in the mix of vehicles that get produced. No less substantive change should be demanded from a stimulus package for our dysfunctional transportation system.
As part of ensuring accountability, state DOTs should report on the results of how transportation stimulus money gets spent. That sounds like common sense but it would actually be a major shift from the current system. States should report back on the extent to which the projects funded with stimulus money increased or decreased jobs, energy security, carbon dioxide emissions, vehicle miles traveled. Perhaps the second installment of a two-year package would be allocated according to how well states advance national goals with the first installment.
Other priorities for spending transportation stimulus should also advance the nation toward future goals. Emphasis should be placed on expanding clean, efficient transportation choices for Americans by prioritizing investment of new funds for light rail, commuter rail, rapid bus service, high-speed intercity rail and other forms of modern public transportation. At least as much money should be allocated to these transportation choices as to roads and highways. In doing so, federal policy will encourage transportation investments that build dynamic and accessible communities, where more Americans can walk, bike or take transit to get where they need to go. Meanwhile stimulus money allocated to roads and bridges must prioritize "fixing it first." Investment should go to maintenance and repair of America's crumbling bridges, not massive new highway expansions.
The United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) has signed up growing support for these basic principles from over 100 public officials from state, local, and federal government as well as other civic leaders.
To see a list of the principles and signatories see:http://www.uspirg.org/issues/transportation/more-and-better-transit/transportation-principles-signers
To see more about U.S. PIRG’s positions and reports on transportation, see: http://www.uspirg.org/issues/transportation
For an in-depth report on America’s transportation challenges and solutions, see:http://www.uspirg.org/uploads/2q/fV/2qfVu2ZrflTk-TnRQEDdDw/A-Better-Way-to-Go-vUSPIRG.pdf
To view this and future blogs by Baxandall and Krieger, go to http://transportation.nationaljournal.com/2008/12/how-should-infrastructure-stimulus-be-spent.php
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