By Alec MacGillis and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 14, 2008
President-elect Barack Obama calls it "the largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s." New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg compares it to the New Deal -- when workers built hundreds of bridges, dams and parkways -- while saying it could help close the gap with China, where he recently traveled on a Shanghai train at 267 mph.
Most of the infrastructure spending being proposed for the massive stimulus package that Obama and congressional Democrats are readying, however, is not exactly the stuff of history, but destined for routine projects that have been on the to-do lists of state highway departments for years. Oklahoma wants to repave stretches of Interstates 35 and 40 and build "cable barriers" to keep wayward cars from crossing medians. New Jersey wants to repaint 88 bridges and restore Route 35 from Toms River to Mantoloking. Scottsdale, Ariz., wants to widen 1.5 miles of Scottsdale Road.
On the campaign trail, Obama said he would "rebuild America" with an "infrastructure bank" run by a new board that would award $60 billion over a decade to projects such as high-speed rail to take the country in a more energy-efficient direction. But the crumbling economy, while giving impetus to big spending plans, has also put a new emphasis on projects that can be started immediately -- "use it or lose it," Obama said last week -- and created a clear tension between the need to create jobs fast and the desire for a lasting legacy.
"It doesn't have the power to stir men's souls," said David Goldberg of Smart Growth America. "Repair and maintenance are good. We need to make sure we're building bridges that stand, not bridges to nowhere. But to gild the lily . . . where we're resurfacing pieces of road that aren't that critical, just to be able to say we spent the money, is not what we're after."
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is proud that his city was able to quickly rebuild the Interstate 35 bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River in 2007 while making sure to include capacity for a future transit line on it. But he worries that many of the road and bridge upgrades around the country will not be done in a similarly farsighted way, given the time pressures.
"The quickest things we can do may not be the ones that have the most significant long-term impact on the green economy," he said. "Unless we push a transit investment, this will end up being a stimulus package that rebalances our transportation strategy toward roads and away from [what] we need to get off our addiction to oil."
Mayors say there would be a better chance for a long-term impact if the money were focused on metropolitan areas where investments could make the most difference in reducing congestion and lessening dependence on cars. They doubt that will happen if infrastructure funding goes directly to state capitals.
In Seattle, Mayor Greg Nickels said that the list of projects submitted by Washington state included only one in Seattle, for a ferry dock, while the city has ambitious hopes for removing a hulking highway ramp in a revitalized neighborhood and accelerating a light-rail expansion.
"Metro areas really are the engines of the economy, and to the extent that this can go directly to the metro areas rather than a cumbersome state process, it will have more effect," Nickels said. "States can do a nice job in rural counties, but in metro areas it's not always a good relationship or very nimble."
As it stands, Congress, wanting to keep things simple, plans to disburse the money under existing formulas -- funding for roads and bridges will go to state governments, while money for public transit will go to the local agencies that receive transit funding.
State officials are playing down concerns about their proposed projects' value. New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine said repairing a swath of roads and bridges is ambitious in its own right. "We could spend money on further provision of rail to Port Elizabeth and Port Newark, but if the highways weren't paved, we actually wouldn't have the ability to have the trains get to the spot to take the goods to the local distribution outlet," he said. "Those deferred maintenance investments are fundamental to maintaining a capital infrastructure."
Oklahoma transportation director Gary Ridley justifies his state's wish list in similar terms. Its highway pavements "are probably 40 years old, and some of them have been replaced, but a lot of them haven't," he said. "It's not like we're grabbing these out of the air."
On the trail, Obama spoke often of the potential for high-speed rail linking the cities of the industrial Midwest. But the transit projects being proposed also tend to be on a smaller scale: extending bus rapid-transit lanes, buying new commuter rail cars, upgrading commuter rail lines.
"Everyone would like grand projects, but the fact of the matter is that we're really trying to put people to work," said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association. "A large number of small projects spread across the country make more impact than a handful of big projects in a few places."
The business community approves of the project list, noting that study groups have pegged total infrastructure repair needs at $1.6 trillion. "It's not sexy, but it's jobs," said J.P. Fielder, a spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "It's not dams and giant beautiful works of art. It's these low-end roads connecting certain places."
The Obama transition team is aware of the tension created by its goal of immediate stimulus but contends it can be resolved. For one thing, one aide said, some of the most legacy-building aspects of the recovery plan will be in areas other than transportation infrastructure -- such as expanding the electric grid, retrofitting schools to make them energy efficient and modernizing medical record-keeping.
Defending the emerging list of projects, the aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said there simply is a vast need for repairs. But the aide said that the Obama team also has its eye out for longer-term projects to invest in, and that for all the emphasis on quick spending, the recovery plan is considered a two-year undertaking. What is still to be determined is how some of those more ambitious projects would be chosen and how that money would be apportioned.
Others in Washington and at the state level also hope for a consensus between the short and long term. Early in 2009, they say, states will be able to spend stimulus money mostly on badly needed maintenance, as well as new projects that are ready to begin. Considerations about the country's future transportation needs will come later, they say, in the debate surrounding the regular transportation budget, which will be up for its five-year reauthorization next fall.
"It's apples and oranges. It is stimulus and economic recovery versus a long-term strategic plan for the nation's infrastructure," said Tony Dorsey, a spokesman for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. He noted that a few items on the states' wish lists are of a larger scale: California wants to rebuild the southern access to the Golden Gate Bridge, while New Jersey wants to accelerate the construction of a second rail tunnel under the Hudson River.
The construction industry also sees a two-step process. "Do the rinky-dink projects, the smaller projects," said Frank Rapoport, head of the global infrastructure practice at the McKenna, Long & Aldrich law firm. Then, later in 2009, he said, the government should use any leftover stimulus money to leverage private equity to tackle larger challenges, possibly via Obama's proposed infrastructure bank.
That approach sounds good to Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which funds some infrastructure projects. "This is a once-in-50-year opportunity," she said. "We ought to repair what needs to be fixed and take a chunk of the cash and do that, but while we're doing that, develop an overall blueprint for how the rest of the money should be spent."
But that plan assumes that there will be enough money, political will and public support left over after an initial burst of spending to fuel broader investments. It is unclear how much money will be devoted to infrastructure in the stimulus package, which could surpass $500 billion. But the highway officials association has identified more than 5,000 road and bridge projects costing $64 billion that are ready to go, and the transit officials' association has identified 736 projects costing $12.2 billion that could start within 90 days.
If the stimulus funds many of those projects in the short term, there could be less appetite for increasing Washington's long-term investment beyond the roughly $50 billion a year it spends annually now. And on Capitol Hill, members of both parties agree that the focus has to be on the short term.
"Filling the potholes or repaving a stretch of road may not be as visual as the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge, but that paved road is going to make a lot of difference in people's lives," said Jim Berard, spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "Will there be political will and money" for later spending? "We don't know. We'll build that bridge when we come to it. Trying to do bigger-type infrastructure improvement at this point would be irresponsible. You'd be fiddling while Rome burst into flames."